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Editorials

Downsizing: The road to nowhere good.
By Daniel T. Warren
Mar 22, 2009, 11:27
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Soon the voters in West Seneca will be voting on the question of whether or not to reduce the size of the town board from 5 to 3. The voters in West Seneca will be voting on this question not because of Mr. Gaughan's petition. It is because the Town Board passed a resolution to put this question to the voters on October 21, 2008 (See http://www.upstate-citizens.org/Resolution.pdf). Mr. Gaughan's petition as was Mr. Piotrowski's resolutions were improperly worded and deceptive. The petition and the supervisor's resolutions were identically worded and the Appellate Division, Fourth Department of the New York Supreme Court held that the petition was as a matter of law misleading (http://www.courts.state.ny.us/AD4/Court/Decisions/2008/10-28-08/1383.1.pdf). It is therefore no surprise that the wording on Mr. Gaughan's petitions circulated this month is worded virtually identical to the resolution passed by the town board back in October 2008.

I have previously wrote how, if passed, this will have an adverse effect on open government and will turn our form of town governance from majority to minority rule particularly on issues requiring super-majority votes. I also challenged the purported cost savings touted by Mr. Gaughan (http://www.speakupwny.com/article_3836.shtml). Mr. Gaughan has since corrected the figures in his "study." Also let's be clear here, there is no cause and effect between reducing the size of any town board and the major economic issues we are facing due to the likes of Medicaid, pension costs or unfunded mandates. It will also not reduce the number of governmental entities.

Some recognize the lack of a cause and effect on these major issues and admit that this is at best a purely symbolic gesture that may lead to more change. However we have had this type of symbolism in the past. The Erie County Legislature has been reduced twice in the last few decades to bring it down from 21 to 15 members. We are now discussing further reducing it to 9 members. There are vast differences between reducing the number of county legislators and town board members since each legislator has their own district office and staff where town board members do not, but what change did this symbolism get us? If you take a symbolic check to the bank you will probably be charged with a crime after they laugh at you.

I have heard from various sources that this may also have an impact on our town's ability to borrow through bonds. I am trying to confirm this but here is what I have found out so far. Beginning in 2008 Moody's began recalibrating its US Municipal Bond Ratings to the company's Global Rating Scale. In November 2008 two of West Seneca's bond issues were downgraded (The bonds with a sale date of November 30, 2006 and July 2, 1998). In December 2008 Moody's issued a special comment entitled "Impact of the Credit Crisis and Recession on Local Governments" it stated in that comment that "in the past, municipalities with strong management teams, diverse revenue sources, predictable borrowing costs and sound liquidity and reserves are expected to fare better than those without these advantages. Generally speaking, the willingness of a local government's leadership to make the adjustments necessary to adapt will be a key factor in maintaining that government's credit rating. However, a more prolonged, deep downturn would significantly increase the fiscal challenges that municipalities will face and likely lead to greater downward rating pressure." I believe it is clear that in the future we need a strong town board willing to make the difficult choices for the people of West Seneca. Reducing the Town Board and depriving the voters of an opportunity to choose between keeping up to two veteran board members or to put in up to two new members on the town board this November will not provide us with this.

So why do people want to do this? Perhaps they are just angry and want to do something, even if it has the effect of cutting off their noses to spite their face. Perhaps they do not understand the difference in the governance of a town and a city. Perhaps they do not like who is holding the office rather than the fact that the office exists. Perhaps they have a political agenda to eliminate their opponents or dissenters, or perhaps a combination of two or more of these reasons.

Do we need change in our government? Absolutely! Mr. Gaughan's position of abolishing villages is good. I would go one step further and abolish towns of the second class as well. However, I do not believe that going from town to town and village to village is the way to do this. There are political realities that we have to face. Generally, if you abolish a village the taxes to those in the former village will go down, however, taxes on those in the town that are located outside the former village will go up. Perhaps those who do not want three layers of government over them should not move into villages, or if they are already there move out?

I believe that in order to tackle the issues that we face that we would need to do it by amending our State Constitution just as it was amended in 1923 to abolish cities of the second class. It is during this process that we can have a public discussion on how we want to be governed and adopt one that a majority of voters think is best. Also the way to address our major issues such as unfunded mandates, choices of local governance, Medicaid, etc. is to have a state constitutional convention. The next time we will be asked whether to have one or not is in 2017.

I am concerned that when the time comes for a state constitutional convention we citizens will be too tired and beaten down by the losses incurred by pursuing symbolism and not obtaining substantive change to meaningfully participate in the fight for substantive change. It is working towards a solution to the issues we face that our attention and efforts must be focused on, not meaningless symbolism.

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