Governance Report Calls For Collaboration, Public Dialogue On Issues In Erie County

By Arthur Page

Release Date: February 2, 1996 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Governance Project at the University at Buffalo today issued a report encouraging collaboration on issues of governance of regional significance in Erie County, with the aim of improving local governance and service delivery.

The executive summary of "Governance in Erie County: A Foundation for Understanding and Action" noted that "the extent of interdependence within the region indicates that the region has a common destiny.

"Common destiny implies not regional government, but rather establishment of processes and institutions that permit deliberating issues at the regional scale," it added. "There is currently no well-developed mechanism for citizens and policy makers to wear regional hats in a forum specifically designed to debate issues of regional significance."

The 321-page report was released today at a conference held at UB. Local government officials, corporate leaders, civic representatives and academics were invited to the forum to hear the findings of the report and begin reflection on how systems of government in Erie County are organized and managed, and to consider questions about the future of the region.

In addition to calling for today's forum to present analyses and findings of the report "and begin the process of deliberating governance concerns of regional significance," the report recommended three other steps "to build a base of useful information, communicate better with one another and promote cooperative approaches to regional challenges."

-- Develop an accessible, on-line regional information network for the exchange of information between area residents, governments, businesses, foundations, not-for-profit institutions, schools and other potential users.

-- Conduct a large-scale survey of area residents and stakeholders to determine attitudes and beliefs about issues of governance. The survey would correct what the report refers to as "a major gap in the region's ability to understand and act on issues of regional significance."

-- Hold a series of follow-up forums on issues of governance for targeted audiences, specifically for municipal officers, legislators, and information providers and users of a regional information network.

UB President William R. Greiner initiated the Governance Project in early 1994, giving it the immediate charge to marshal data, monitor trends and analyze information on structures and issues of governance in the region as a basis for future inquiry, discussion and action.

Members of the Governance Project are Kathryn A. Foster, project director and assistant professor in the Department of Planning, School of Architecture and Planning; David C. Perry, professor in the Department of Planning; Alfred D. Price, associate professor in the Department of Planning; John B. Sheffer II, UB acting vice president for public service and urban affairs and a senior fellow with dual appointments in the UB School of Law and UB School of Architecture and Planning, and Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the UB Center for Urban Studies and associate professor in the Department of Planning and Department of American Studies

Greiner praised the work of the Governance Project and its first report.

"The Governance Project team has pulled together some essential background on issues that neither government nor business can tackle alone," he noted. "UB has the technology, the know-how and the connections to bring the players together. We can offer leadership in promoting some much-needed analysis."

Greiner added, "This first Governance Project report is a great example of a point that we' ve been making with UB's many constituencies: The university is an unmatched informational resource for our community.

"For that reason, we see the Governance Project as a key opportunity for expanding UB's service to our community. The Erie County report is only a beginning. We are looking forward to some extremely productive next steps."

Today's forum concluded with Greiner challenging the region to join UB in an ongoing regional discussion and collaboration designed to pursue the action steps outlined in the Governance Project report.

The report's executive summary stressed that "as the major university center in the region, the University at Buffalo can and should play an important role in an ongoing discourse on issues of governance, over and above the publication of this report.

"Particularly as a state institution, the university has a genuine obligation to be an active partner in the development of the community. It is also true, however, that for a regional collaboration to be successful, every sector of the region must join in the cooperative venture."

Sheffer, a former state senator and assemblyman, noted: "In my experience in local and state government and while working on this project at the university, I found that many people view the future of governance in the region as a choice between the status quo or metropolitan government."

"The main point of this report," he stressed, "is that those are by no means the only choices and that there is a whole frontier of collaborations, efficiencies and reforms that we can and should pursue in this region."

Foster said the project was propelled by the fact that "the desire for a responsive, cost-effective structure of governance infuses political discussions within Erie County.

"All regions across the nation face enormous challenges regarding issues of governance," she said. "In Erie County, we need to be prepared to develop effective systems of governance to maintain our quality of life, attract new businesses and compete in the global economy."

Echoing the report's call for dialogue and citizen input, Foster noted: "In Erie County, we need a way for the citizenry to sit down and deliberate about governance issues and services. We need to discuss what's important to us, what the tradeoffs are, what it is we want."

She pointed out that the Governance Project was founded on the basic premise that a vigorous region with a hopeful future requires competent, informed decision-making. Good decision-making requires useful, reliable information on the structures and issues of governance that drive the region.

"Governance in Erie County: A Foundation for Understanding and Action" found that "the structure of governance in Erie County is neither particularly fragmented nor integrated compared to other metropolitan areas in the nation and New York State."

"Except for minor adjustments, town boundaries are the same today as they were in 1857, nearly 140 years ago," it said. "The last incorporation was the Village of Orchard Park in 1921."

The report also noted "a long history of urban-rural rivalry in the region, with more specific rivalry between the City of Buffalo and its suburban neighbors."

Such rivalry and long-standing political borders have complicated past efforts to do effective planning on a regional basis.

"Nonetheless," the report added, "since the 1930s, intermunicipal agreements, formation of special-purpose governments and transfers of functions from municipalities to the county have resulted in de facto regionalization of several services, including transportation, social services, health services, central police functions, some parks and funding for region-serving cultural facilities."

The report also noted the impressive network of formal and informal agreements, alliances and collaborations that already exist among localities.

It stressed that "there is no single optimal arrangement" for systems of local government.

"Regionalism is not an ideal state to be achieved; bigger government is not necessarily better government," it added. "There are instances when decentralized governance is desirable and appropriate, given different service needs and preferences" of local residents.

The report noted that Erie County comprises 1 county, 3 cities, 25 towns, 16 villages, 29 school districts, 49 independent special-purpose governments and parts of 2 Native-American reservations. Within Erie County, there also are nearly 900 dependent special-purpose districts that serve as tax-assessment accounting areas for street lighting, sewer, drainage and other services.

Every resident of Erie County, it added, "lives within a minimum of six local governments: the county, a city or town, a school district and three countywide special-purpose governments. Depending on location, a resident may also reside in up to six more local governments: a village, fire district, housing authority, independent sewer or water authority and a municipal IDA."

Regionalism, the report stressed, "is most extensive in how people live their everyday lives, as indicated by cross-jurisdictional patterns of community, shopping and pursuit of entertainment and personal services, especially in the urban core. Regionalism is also evident in the relatively extensive network of collaborations at the service level. The area is far less regionalized with respect to sharing of tax base or economic development revenues."

An important attribute of the region underscored by the report is residents' strong attachments and allegiances to their local community.