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ANALYSIS by David Staba

Erie County's government implodes in spectacularly pathetic fashion.

More than two years after the Seneca Niagara Casino opened, Niagara Falls still waits for the first shovel in the ground not paid for with state money.

An accountability-free authority that's supposed to concern itself with making sure the buses and trains run on time, and that airplanes actually land at both airports under its control, instead unveils grandiose plans for Buffalo's waterfront -- which rely entirely upon the nation's most heavily burdened taxpayers coughing up more than a quarter-billion dollars.

Back in Niagara Falls, the current occupants of City Hall can afford to create jobs for their friends and loved ones, but not fund the libraries under their control.

And voters in Buffalo and Erie County brace for an election season centered around a flawed field of mayoral candidates and an incredibly vague merger plan that not even its proponents seem able, or willing, to explain.

As a good friend and former editor at the Niagara Gazette used to ponder when such characteristic foolishness ensued -- "How did this happen?"

A better question might be, "What took so long?"

If there's any good to come from the ongoing collapse of Erie County Executive Joel Giambra's fiscal house of cards, it's that harsh light will finally shine on the rodentia infesting the halls of government and quasi-public boardrooms of Western New York.

And the latter are in even greater need of fumigating. The region's self-proclaimed "business advocacy" organization, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, is the common thread connecting Giambra, Buffalo Mayor Tony Masiello, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's fantasy of building a new downtown Buffalo on the taxpayer dime while continuing to neglect Niagara Falls International Airport, and the gum-and-string governmental merger plan.

The Partnership backed Masiello in each of his first three mayoral campaigns, helping build a war chest that scared off any serious opposition in 1997 and 2001. It also gave the region Giambra, a Democrat-turned-Republican and an alleged reformer whose primary previous experience was in helping make sure business continued exactly as usual in Buffalo's City Hall for the better part of two decades.

Word has it that the self-important organization led by Andrew Rudnick plans to back state Sen. Byron Brown in this year's mayoral race, but the Partnership's prior generosity to Masiello helped him build a war chest of more than a $1 million for an increasingly likely re-election bid.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt proved himself the most sensible mayoral hopeful last week when he pulled out of the race. In addition to the economic problems that have dogged the city for decades, the eventual survivor will have to operate under the emasculating eye of Buffalo's state-imposed control board. That body is headed by -- you guessed it -- another member of the Partnership board, Brian Lipke of Gibraltar Steel.

Not that the Partnership much cares who holds what office, as long as they go along with the program. That, of course, entails making sure members of the Partnership get as much free stuff as possible.

The breathlessly announced plans for the dormant stretch of waterfront the NFTA has squatted on for nearly half a century follow the Partnership playbook perfectly.

Former Carborundum Corp. President Luiz Kahl heads the NFTA, while also serving as president of The Vector Group, a private investment group based in Williamsville. He also serves on the Partnership's board of directors.

Other members include NOCO patriarch Reginald Newman, whom Kahl -- his longtime friend and sometime business partner -- guaranteed a monopoly on jet fuel and cargo handling at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport while making sure its poor cousin in Niagara Falls provided no competition, and Carl Montante, managing director of Uniland Development Corp.

Last month, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Uniland's $750 million vision for housing, retail, office and hotel space and, you guessed it, a convention center was chosen by Kahl's NFTA.

Uniland's sketches of its proposed mini-city look nice enough -- if you like the cookie-cutter red-brick office parks that the company has built throughout Amherst and other suburbs, sterilized cubicle farms that sucked thousands of jobs and much of the life out of Buffalo's existing downtown.

The notion that a city government that needed the imposition of a control board nearly two years ago just to remain solvent, a county government whose leader claims it can't afford to keep plowing or patrolling its streets and a state government that can't pass a budget on time somehow are going to come up with $300 million to give to Uniland isn't just laughable. It's shameful.

Then again, the Partnership's leaders had their capacity for shame surgically removed long ago. When Adelphia's financial scandal broke in 2002, the Partnership propped up one if its own, Mark Hamister, as the white knight riding in to save the Buffalo Sabres, then owned by the cable-television company.

Problem was, Hamister didn't actually want to spend much of his own money. His purchase offer hinged entirely on his demand for about $40 million in public money, and collapsed quickly after the public found out.

It's clear from the timing of both the Uniland fantasy and the cobbled-together merger plan that would combine the City of Buffalo and County of Erie, but leave the scores of surrounding towns and villages intact, that the Partnership plans to use the utter disgust its minions have already generated to its advantage.

"People are so mad right now, they'll go for anything that even sounds like reform, or something new," said one Buffalo business owner.

One of the Partnership's greatest allies, the Buffalo News, appears poised to help sell its latest schemes, just as the region's largest daily newspaper has played cheerleader to every other bill of goods sold by the exclusive group of country-clubbers and kitchen-cabineteers.

Despite the push by proponents to get the merger plan on the ballot in November, the News has yet to offer any substantive look at its merits, or flaws. Instead, the paper has channeled its resources into a self-laudatory and self-indulgent bit of navel-gazing entitled "Why Not Buffalo?"

Sporting a bizarre hood ornament of a logo and a rather desperate-sounding title, the promised year-long series blames the area's woes on the scapegoat favored by politicians and business-advocacy groups alike -- you.

"Lose the attitude," reads an introductory story in the newspaper's First Sunday insert, a bit of preachiness that embodies the blame-the-victim mentality favored by the local elite and its media mouthpiece.

"You know the one -- the we-can't-get-out-of-our-own-way, we-can't-get-anything-done, Buffalo-is-doomed attitude that feeds the beast of economic and cultural stagnation that could devour this city. If we let it.

"Lose it. Now."

Aha! So that's the problem. It's not the politicians who act as if public money and property are theirs to give -- or take -- or the backroom dealers who put them in power and keep them there. It's those of us who spend our waking hours trying to pay bills, keep a job or run a business and raise a family without the benefit of professional domestic help who brought this upon ourselves.

What a relief. And here we thought it was the people who discuss how best to divvy up our money, while they enjoy leisurely lunches at the Buffalo Club.

Thankfully, though, the News is going to save not just Buffalo, but the entire area.

"Over the next 12 months, the newspaper will make this effort a top priority, by producing a series of stories that will define our region's central problems in new and innovative ways," read yet another introductory story. "Better yet: These stories will offer real solutions for change."

Thank goodness. "Real solutions" from an institution that backed just about every development that it now pours gallons of ink into bitching about -- from building the new University at Buffalo campus in the suburbs in the 1960s to the NFTA's infamous train to nowhere to an imbecilic plan for expanding the Peace Bridge that created a seemingly endless stalemate. Oh, and let's not forget that the News has repeatedly endorsed both Giambra and Masiello.

It's a safe bet that those "real solutions" will include ideas just as bright as the Uniland proposal, which centers on building a 300,000-square-foot convention center. This, even though a study released last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute shows that demand for such facilities is steadily plunging, with even places with much more to offer conventioneers -- like New York, Chicago and Atlanta -- desperately trying to attract events by giving away space.

Such support from the region's dominant media outlet emboldens our "leaders," elected and otherwise, to advance their agendas without fear of second-guessing or accountability. In November, Giambra gambled that he could grab another sales-tax penny to hoard in the county coffers -- which he's been busy depleting for five years -- by threatening the public with a draconian "red" budget.

No snowplowing or sheriff's patrols, Giambra warned gloomily. No libraries -- a tempting target for politicos in both Niagara Falls and Buffalo -- or zoo for the kids.

Just one problem there. He couldn't even get the members of his adopted party to back his power play. Instead, he had to rely on his old party to come through with enough votes for a two-thirds majority. And with that sort of leverage there for the taking, opportunist extraordinaire Al DeBenedetti, the lone city legislator to ultimately oppose the penny increase, snatched it.

Forget that DeBenedetti used to parcel out the same patronage jobs he now rails against under former County Executive Dennis Gorski, or that the self-appointed protector of the citizenry couldn't find the time to pay his own property taxes until learning the story was about to break.

And forget that the whole "red budget-green budget" charade was meant to blame Albany for rising Medicaid costs. After weeks of repeating Giambra's finger-pointing, even the News finally pointed out that the increase in the Medicaid tab accounts for only a fraction of the money pit Giambra himself dug by doling out a 30-percent tax cut without even trying to slash spending by a similar amount.

That, of course, would have meant trimming a list of patronage hires that makes Niagara Falls Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello's Friends and Family Plan look downright austere by comparison, or saying "no" occasionally when Giambra's pals at the Partnership came around looking to dip their beaks in the government trough.

Instead, Giambra thought he could walk his political high-wire indefinitely. At least until last Friday, when DeBenedetti gave it a good twang.

The legislator's second flip-flop in less than a week triggered a rebellion among Giambra's immediate underlings, with the sheriff, comptroller, district attorney and county clerk each either filing or threatening lawsuits in an attempt to avert the thousands of layoffs promised by Giambra if he couldn't get that extra penny.

Maybe, just maybe, the self-proclaimed leaders -- in government, business and the media -- who have made Western New York what it is today will watch Giambra's self-immolation. And realize that they, and not the people they supposedly serve, are the ones in need of an attitude adjustment.

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. 8 2005