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ANALYSIS by David Staba

In 1999, Joel Giambra rode into office as a new kind of politician, one offering a vision of regionalism that would save not only Buffalo and Erie County, but eventually all of Western New York.

Forget that Giambra never offered more than vague details about what "regionalism" actually entailed, other than impaneling blue-ribbon commissions and scolding the City of Buffalo for being poor -- at least when compared to much of his suburban power base and the county rich with surpluses left by his predecessor.

Details didn't matter to the honchos at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership who paid for the former Democratic city comptroller's bid to remake himself as a Republican county executive. Nor did they count in the offices of the Buffalo News, which bought into the warm, fuzzy concept of "reform," then helped sell it to voters.

Well, maybe all those movers and shakers should have stood still for long enough to pay attention before jumping on the bandwagon. Giambra's blueprint for regionalism turned out to be little more than a few crude notes scrawled on a bar napkin, a document that vanished in the flames of taxpayer anger last week.

When the Good Ship Erie County crashed on the rocks Tuesday afternoon, what little momentum he had built toward eliminating the multiple layers of government that weigh down the region's economy vanished as quickly as the tenuous support for Giambra's same-as-it-ever-was "green budget" and its 12 percent sales-tax increase.

"If you have two dysfunctional governments and you consolidate them, the best you can hope for is one dysfunctional government," said county Legislator Barry Weinstein (R-Amherst) when asked what the fiscal meltdown meant for the future of a merger plan Giambra had hoped to get on November's ballot.

Friday, Giambra departed on what might stand as the most ill-timed vacation in local political annals. He did, however, leave a primer for his peers in Niagara County -- and the rest of the democratized world, for that matter -- on how to screw things up as badly, and as quickly, as possible.

1. Abandon your party.

Dennis Gorski might not have been the most electrifying public speaker or the most charismatic politician, but he did build massive surpluses during his 12 years in the county executive's suite.

Republicans, eager to regain the top spot no member of their party had held since Ed Rutkowski nearly bankrupted the county in the mid-1980s, finally gave up on running their own candidates and enticed Giambra to switch sides.

Thanks to incumbent fatigue, as well as the financial support of the Partnership and editorial backing of the News, the GOP's end run worked.

At least sort of, and for a while.

To maintain a working majority in the legislature, Giambra's administration had to entice first Al DeBenedetti, then Chuck Swanick, to abandon the Democratic caucus in exchange for the chairman's job.

That worked for a while, with Giambra's popularity cowing legislators into approving his first five budgets, which paid for slashing property taxes by a total of 31 percent by draining the surpluses left by Gorski.

Such duplicity kept Giambra's agenda cruising along for five years, but ultimately stripped the administration of the bedrock support it needed to get through this year's budget chaos.

It's tough enough to produce a two-thirds majority in an evenly split chamber, even if you haven't alienated most members of both parties.

2. Give everyone you know a job.

To be fair, this has been a fundamental requirement of elective politics for centuries. And nobody did it better than Giambra.

Patronage certainly isn't the biggest expense facing local governments saddled with mandates from Albany and Washington, D.C. But nothing ticks taxpayers off more than realizing that they're losing services while cousins and campaign workers get jobs that aren't necessarily crucial, but yield primo wages and benefits.

"Cronyism" was one of the main charges Giambra leveled against incumbent Dennis Gorski in 1999, decrying the same Democratic machine that kept him very gainfully employed at City Hall for 20 years.

To his credit, Giambra did rid county government of most of Gorski's people. And replaced them with his own. Exhibit A -- Bruce Fisher. Giambra originally wanted his longtime aide as deputy county executive, but GOP leaders realized that would mean giving the county's two top administrative jobs to two men with zero experience running a government. Giambra grudgingly accepted Tonawanda Supervisor Carl Calabrese in the deputy's role, but insisted on creating a chief-of-staff position for Fisher. At the same salary as Calabrese, of course.

Driver/executive assistant/patronage czar Victor Getz has been the lightning rod in the patronage furor, but one simple number is far more telling than the saga of Giambra's multi-titled boyhood friend -- 18. As in the number of people who worked on the county of executive's staff before the budget hit the fan. Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, meanwhile, somehow managed to get by with four staffers. Until this year's budget cycle, when she cut one of them.

Right up to the moment when the county legislature finally rebuffed a tax increase, though, Giambra insisted he needed every one of those 18 people in order to continue "re-engineering" county government. If this all sounds familiar to Niagara Falls readers, it should. Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello's Friends, Family and Flunkies Plan lacks the scope of Giambra's, but shares the same philosophy: "I won the election, so what are you going to do about it?"

Anello might be wise to take note of how well that credo is working out for Giambra.

3. Act invincible.

With a year remaining in his first term, Giambra's political star was still rising. Republican leaders and pundits from North Buffalo to Nassau predicted a run for statewide office -- comptroller, perhaps, or even lieutenant governor.

Locally, his support provided the keys to the kingdom. Candidates he backed during his first term, chosen more for their rubber-stamping prowess and willingness than political savvy or common sense won in most suburban districts.

Meanwhile, he successfully lobbied Albany to impose a control board to oversee Buffalo's troubled finances, demanding a seat while refusing to part with any of the sales-tax revenue the city had provided to bail out Rutkowski's administration nearly two decades earlier. But he got what he wanted, because that was how things went around here.

At least until March 2003. One Saturday night, at a conference meant to discuss school choice, he explained why he chose to take his children out of a public city school and put them in a private suburban one.

"Our children began to be fearful of black kids," Giambra told the racially mixed crowd of parents and teachers in attendance.


If what he said was true, he was admitting he lacked the ability, or will, to teach his own children tolerance. If it wasn't, he was admitting something far worse.

And the simple fact he said it at all gave GOP leaders serious pause as to how Giambra would play on a statewide stage, particularly in the most diverse city in the world.

He issued one of those apologies that amounted to "I'm sorry if anyone misunderstood me and was offended," rather than plain, old "I'm sorry," and cruised to a re-election win over a poorly financed, relatively unknown foe.

Then the real problems started. Millions of dollars in taxpayer money spent on overpriced furniture purchased from a Giambra campaign contributor, along with a grand jury investigation into mismanagement and worse at the Erie County Department of Public Works.

Hypocrisy carries a strong odor, and it didn't take long for taxpayers to get a whiff.

The resulting foul mood first showed itself last spring, after a "blue-ribbon panel" appointed by Giambra recommended that he, along with other elected officials and department heads, deserved a raise approaching 40 percent.

The ensuing outcry persuaded Giambra to grudgingly give up on the idea. It should also have taught him about trying to coerce more money out of increasingly agitated taxpayers. By November, though, it was clear that no such lesson had been learned.

4. Blame everybody else.

Giambra's crusade against Medicaid costs began long before the depth of the county's budget deficit became public knowledge. No doubt, combined with employee pensions and benefits, the health-care program for the poor eats an immense portion of the budget, a share pegged by some at 80 percent or more.

But that's true in every county in the state. Giambra paraded out a couple of his colleagues yet again last week in an effort to deflect attention from his own crisis, but the simple fact remains that no other government has crashed as spectacularly as his.

There's certainly plenty of culpability to be shared by legislators for whom a "part-time" salary of $42,500 per year wasn't enough to educate themselves about the budget problems, rather than faithfully digest whatever the administration fed them.

Giambra, though, was at the wheel for half a decade before everything blew up. He's refused to admit that his own tax cuts and wanton use of reserves poised the county on a fiscal cliff, or that his patronage-addled administration provides a visible symptom of an overstuffed county government.

Which brings us to the "red" and "green" budgets.

5. Try scaring taxpayers into paying more taxes.

Giambra could have officially introduced his "green budget," which required increasing the sales tax by one percentage point but not making any serious changes to the way the county does business, putting the onus for making needed cuts on the legislature.

Or he could have done the responsible thing, by introducing a spending plan that involved real reform and a smaller tax hike -- even, God forbid, a property-tax increase. Meaningful cuts would have cost jobs and services, but could have been done in a more circumspect manner than the random chainsawing that took place last week.

Substantial reform might even have made "creating new revenue" palatable enough to muster the required two-thirds majority.

But no.

Giambra tried to monger fear by threatening "an end to county government as we know it." Closed libraries, fewer snowplows and road patrols -- the works.

If he figured people would flock to legislature meetings, demanding a tax increase, he was sadly mistaken. The maneuver had the opposite effect. If Giambra could come up with a spending plan that cut $108 million, the reasoning went, it could feasibly be done. Whether it made sense or not.

Once DeBenedetti withdrew his support for the tax increase in early February, reopening the debate on the "Giambra penny," the folly of the red-budget ploy showed itself.

Angry people, particularly those angry about paying taxes, tend not to worry about details. Particularly when the angriest people live in the areas that need county services the least, relatively wealthy towns and villages that already provide needed functions or have the capability to do so.

The representatives of those districts, primarily Republicans who Giambra incorrectly figured would back him no matter what, caved in immediately.

It didn't help that a number of them didn't seem to know what they were voting about. Elise Cusack of Amherst, Lancaster's Denise Marshall and Minority Leader Michael Razenhofer, who represents Clarence and Newstead, somehow managed to vote against both the sales-tax increase and the ensuing package of cuts.

In the end, legislators on both sides who had long feared the administration ignored it. Giambra and DeBenedetti struck an agreement that got attention from the media, but none from the rest of the legislators.

By that point, everyone else had spent a weekend working with court-appointed mediators on a compromise of their own.

That deal also ultimately fell apart for lack of votes, but not until Giambra had already been rendered irrelevant. Another lesson here for Anello as he faces an increasingly hostile City Council -- ignore elected representatives long enough, and they'll eventually return the favor.

6. Go on vacation.

Nothing pleases voters more than seeing the captain who took the ship into the rocks head to sunny Florida.

As department heads scrambled to find ways to lay off up to 2,000 workers as quickly as possible while maintaining some semblance of a government, the Giambra clan headed to Orlando last Friday.

A spokesman justified the trip by saying Giambra had "sort of neglected his family" over the past few months.

Which certainly isn't fair to them. But what about the growing deficit he neglected to address for more than five years, instead filling it with reserves and tobacco-settlement money?

And what about the thousands of workers who will soon be worrying about how to feed their families, rather than when to take them to Disneyworld?

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 22 2005