When I moved to this area in 2001, WNY was economically and politically in peak “old Buffalo” malaise, treading water while the world largely passed it by. Since then, the region’s journey forward has been pretty epic. Old, intractable problems still persist, but the region has made amazing strides in terms of finding its way into the 21st century.
Except for the Peace Bridge. For some reason, we remain stuck on the question of improving access to our well-to-do neighbor.
At the beginning of the aughts, the city of Buffalo was the region’s financial basket case, lumbering towards an inevitable control board’s oversight while suburbia touted the seemingly miraculous financial stability of then-Erie County Executive Joel Giambra’s county government. He cut taxes and maintained services, even taking over the maintenance of city parks from the hurting city.
The 2005 red/green county budget fiasco blew up the county’s charade, revealing that our perception of its comparative fiscal stability was artifice, built with finite tobacco settlement windfalls. The county soon found itself with its own control board, and a region that really couldn’t afford the hit found itself brought to its knees.
Since then, both the city and county have righted their financial ships and things are looking up. Neither Buffalo nor Erie County hold an exclusive monopoly on prudent governance. The specter of 2005 still looms — no one is eager to repeat it.
Regionalism as an idea was killed due to politics — chauvinism, patronage, and racism. We hit rock bottom with two control boards before we could right ourselves, but the state recognized that a strong region is anchored by a strong city.
Erie County remains a segregated place where poverty and minorities are concentrated within distinct parts of the city of Buffalo. There remains a tendency to focus on what divides us, rather than what unites us. Racism still plays a huge role in our political reality, logic gets turned on its head as well-to-do white people play victim, and craven politicians exploit that. It’s us vs. them; we pay our taxes while they get their Obamaphones and welfare and Medicaid and HEAP and SNAP and WIC. It’s downstate’s fault, so they demand secession.
Blame the poor, blame the immigrants, blame African-Americans, blame the city they live in. Here in Erie County, the artificial divide between city and suburb is best used to further inflame already toxic arguments about who pays, and where it goes. Proud city folks denounce the suburbs as homogeneous or racist repositories of boredom whose sprawl is killing everyone. While largely apathetic, suburban voters can easily become inflamed by rhetoric about socialism and redistributive financial policies.
It’s easy to hate the people you think are taking advantage of you. It’s easy to hate the “other” — people who don’t look or live like you. The easy way out is secession. Separation. It’s why we’ll never have a unified countywide school district or a metropolitan form of government to replace our current, corrupt menagerie of taxing districts.
I guess it makes political or strategic sense to divide and conquer, but it’s not leadership. Leadership is taking what divides us and finding common ground. Leadership is about listening to the people and implementing policies that will help as many as possible while doing as little harm as necessary. Leadership is rejecting the easy way out or divisive rhetoric and understanding that a County Executive, for instance, must serve the whole county; not just the ones that will vote for him. Leadership means finding solutions to intractable problems and not blaming the victims.
In a way, that’s what’s so brilliant about Ray Walter’s “fair share tax” plan, which would seek to abolish a 1977 agreement on how the 3% permanent county sales tax is shared. Campaign issues don’t get more obscure or wonkier than this. The pitch is that Erie County’s cities receive more in sales tax revenue per capita than the suburbs. The agreement can be modified wth consent of the parties, or canceled unilaterally with one year’s notice. Mark Poloncarz says that subsequent state control board legislation forbids the county from canceling the contract; Walter disagrees.
If you’re most people, you never even heard of this before. You have no idea who’s right. Nobody cares.
The whole thing has to be dumbed down literally to capture anyone’s attention, but suffice it to say that it makes sense that the county’s three cities receive a larger share of the sales tax revenue because the need is greater. If you want to parse and analyze Walter’s plan to redistribute the cities’ share to the suburbs, re-read Bruce Fisher’s piece from mid-September. There, Fisher noted,
…neither the Erie County executive nor the executive plus the legislature has the power to change the sales tax distribution. All the recipients would have to agree. Then the State of New York would have to agree.
During the debate between Poloncarz and Walter, there was some back-and-forth about Walter’s plan, and far from acknowledging that the scheme is anti-city, Walter would have us believe that cities would benefit. Yet in one breath, Walter argues that the cities are making out like bandits, getting twice per capita what towns get from the 3% sales tax, but in the next, his plan ”spreads prosperity to every corner of the county and does not pit communities against one another.”
Re-formulating the sales tax sharing plan isn’t conservatism; figuring out a way to abolish the sales tax altogether would be conservatism. This is just double hypocrisy: 1. Walter says Poloncarz only helps the communities that vote for him, yet Walter’s signature policy propsal does exactly that; and 2. Walter wants to avoid pitting suburb vs. city by robbing the cities to throw more cash at the suburbs. That’s not going to work. It will accomplish the opposite, and he’s stoking these divisions.
Put it this way: if Walter’s tax plan was fair, the mayors of the three Erie County cities would have lined up to support it. Their silence and absence is deafening. When I asked a Walter partisan on Twitter about this, here is the response:
Ultimatum. Hostage-taking. How does that meet the goal of “not pit[ting] communities against one another”, as Walter claims? It doesn’t. It’s a noxious idea borne out of a base desire to exploit suburban prejudices and anxieties; to punish the “takers”, who are the most vulnerable and needy in our shared community.
A conservative way to tackle tax equity and poverty and lifting all boats probably exists, but you won’t get it from this Walter campaign. This is the stuff that fuels the local suburban talk radio resentment industry. Setting up a re-do of Empire Zones to spur investment in blighted communities isn’t the problem — access to jobs and credit are the root problems.
By the time the debate was over, the two campaigns’ themes had become quite clear, and the difference between them couldn’t be more stark. Poloncarz was advocating for One Buffalo — the notion that we’re all in this together; that a strong city helps the whole region, and vice-versa. That we can do great things when we work together towards a common goal of making Erie County a better place to live and work. In the last 15 years, we’ve made incredible strides towards that goal — progress that would have seemed unthinkable to you in 2001.
On the other hand, we had a campaign that threatens the cities with ultimata over dramatically reducing their share of the sales tax despite the need for that revenue. Walter’s campaign wants no part of “One Buffalo”, instead very clearly delineating a pure vision of suburban “real” Buffalo versus the crime, blight, and poverty of the inner city. The aspiration isn’t unity, but division. It’s not too dissimilar from how, in the aughts, the suburbs condescended to poor, beleagured Buffalo, while burning through budget-balancing tobacco settlement one-shots.
We can do better in this community than to pit white against black, rich against poor, city against suburb. WNY’s resentment industry is perhaps bigger even than the Medical Campus and SolarCity combined. It’s time it shrank.