Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Regionalism Revisited: The Effort to Streamline Governance in Buffalo and Erie County, New York

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Regionalism Revisited: The Effort to Streamline Governance in Buffalo and Erie County, New York

Article excerpt


During the first half of the twentieth century, burgeoning grain transshipment trade and heavy manufacturing spurred the bustling economy of Buffalo, the eastern-most port on the shores of Lake Erie and the second-largest city in the State of New York. (1) With the jobs that these industries provided came residents to occupy them. In the 1900 census, Buffalo ranked as the eighth-largest city in the United States, with a population of over 350,000. (2) By 1950, Buffalo could claim over 580,000 residents--the most ever in its 118-year history to that time. (3) Buffalo had become overwhelmingly dominant among the many municipalities in the County of Erie.

However, the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which encouraged large oceangoing vessels to bypass Buffalo via Ontario's Welland Canal, severely damaged Buffalo's grain trade in the decades that followed. (4) Meanwhile, numerous manufacturing concerns, most notably Bethlehem Steel in 1982, transferred their operations to southern states and foreign countries in search of lower taxes, less stringent environmental regulations, and a workforce that demanded lower wages. These changes have sapped the City of Buffalo of much of the industrial core that drove its economy through the 1950s. Just as residents arrived with the advent of new jobs, they have left in the wake of those jobs' departure. Although approximately 950,000 people still call Erie County home, (5) the United States Census Bureau estimated Buffalo's population, as of July 2004, at just 282,864--a decline of nearly 10,000 from the Bureau's official count in 2000. (6)

Recognizing this precipitous drop in population and the exodus of industry, a handful of politicians and community leaders in the mid-1990s publicly recommended merging the City of Buffalo into Erie County as an elixir. (7) Such a merger would enable Buffalo to claim the residents of surrounding towns, and thereby vault ahead in the rankings of America's most populous cities. Perhaps more important, proponents of the merger sought to assign successful suburban communities responsibility for returning Erie County's urban center of Buffalo to its former prominence. (8)

The parlance of Buffalonians has termed this effort to transform the governmental structure of Buffalo and Erie County as "regionalism." Support for regionalism gathered steam with the 1999 election of Republican County Executive Joel Giambra, a staunch advocate of consolidation to promote, in the words of a campaign slogan, "better, smarter and cheaper" service delivery. (9) By 2004, having earned re-election with nearly fifty-five percent of the vote against a regionalism opponent in solidly Democratic Erie County, (10) Giambra charged a commission of citizens, led by former State University of New York at Buffalo President William Greiner, to devise a plan for city-county merger that he could present to the voters in a referendum that he optimistically scheduled for November 2005. (11) Soon thereafter, however, the winds of political change suddenly shifted course. Although the commission released a plan of merger in January 2005, it abruptly suspended its work indefinitely later that month, in the wake of a multimillion dollar county budget deficit that voters blamed on the previously popular County Executive. (12) With nearly 80% of Erie County residents believing that Giambra should resign as County Executive, (13) and with Giambra's "favorable[]" poll rating in the single digits, (14) the regionalism effort that seemed plausible to succeed in 2004 has now stalled, as citizens continue to leave the City of Buffalo for suburban Erie County and beyond.

As a new Erie County Executive takes office on January 1, 2008, this Paper seeks to examine the etiology of this current state of inertia, and to consider those provisions of New York law which may offer an electorally palatable alternative to formal consolidation of municipalities, which may nonetheless spur renewed investment to grow the property tax base in the City of Buffalo. …

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