Friday, May 23, 2008

Joe Biden for Secretary of State

Senator Joseph Biden has once again demonstrated that careful thinking, long experience and a commitment to diplomacy, all told, constitute wisdom.

Biden has it. John McCain, sadly, is listening to people -- like the unfortunate Senator Joe Lieberman -- who don't.

In today's Wall Street Journal, Senator Biden's op-ed "Republicans and our Enemies" succinctly explains that Winston Churchill was right: jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

A new book by the editor of The New Republic spends a few hundred pages illustrating how Republican campaign rhetoric has infected our foreign policy and hurt us globally. (I'll review Scoblic's US and Them soon.)

"You either talk, you maintain the status quo, or you go to war," is Biden's rejoinder to John McCain's blustering blistering of Barack Obama. The Democrat's insistence that we have to talk to Iran and other bad actors is smart, Biden says. America can't foreclose talk as an option because doing so leaves us with options either unproductive or dangerous.

Bravo Joe. If a Democrat wins, you should get the appointment. If the Republican wins, your colleagues in the U.S. Senate should hold up McCain's appointment of a Secretary of State unless it's you.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hamilton thrives,, Buffalo dives

How consolidation and regional planning saved a Rust Belt city

Since 1970, Erie County’s population has shrunk slightly, from a high of 1.1 million to today’s 925,000. Yet this shrinking population has spread out over 75 percent more land area. Cornell planning professor Rolf Pendall, among others, has documented the widespread phenomenon in New York State of sprawl without growth.

The Lundine Report offers New York Governor David Paterson an opportunity to help struggling cities.

Academic analysts and some community activists have been upset about runaway suburban sprawl because of its negative economic, ecological and social consequences. In New York State, sprawl is a fact of political life.

But the recent release of the Lundine Commission report holds some small glimmer of a promise that that may change—because buried in an appendix to that report is a little gem of an analysis of New York State law concerning Home Rule.

Home Rule has concerned governors for a long time because Home Rule is usually the rationale for micro-local management of services, and for micro-local control of land-use planning. Former Governor Eliot Spitzer asked Stan Lundine, the former Jamestown mayor who served as Mario Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, to chair a commission on how to make local government more efficient. Lundine and his colleagues (including former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, UB planning professor Kate Foster, and others) came up with 75 recommendations on how to make government work better.

And along the way, the Commission addressed Home Rule—the nice-sounding name for the practice whereby Albany lets suburbs destroy cities. Under Home Rule, suburban jurisdictions get to do their own land-use planning and zoning, set up their own local economic-development operations, and take actions that enable new subdivisions even when there’s housing-market oversupply—and all the while get subsidies from Albany to do so.

The question now is: Will Governor David Paterson ignore or embrace this report?

Fiscal crisis, reform opportunity

There’s nothing new under the sun.

In 1992, Governor Cuomo created a commission on reforming local government. Among its recommendations: Make city-county consolidation easier. Nothing happened. In 2002, Governor George Pataki created a commission on reforming local government. Among its recommendations: Make city-county consolidation easier. Nothing happened. Now, in 2008, Governor David Paterson has just taken delivery of a report from Eliot Spitzer’s commission on reforming local government. Among its recommendations: Make city-county consolidation easier.

Former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra proposed legislation and a plan for city-county consolidation in 2004. The politics of Medicaid, sales tax, and the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority wiped that plan out of existence.

Meanwhile, just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, up the road apiece past the strip joints, wineries, and orchards, there is an old, dirty, cold industrial city and its suburbs that took a different path.

Instead of assembling study groups and commissions over the past 16 years, the province of Ontario—analogous to the State of New York—explained to the city of Hamilton and the county of Wentworth in 1997 that the city and the county needed to do a Who Does What commission, and then to come up with a plan for amalgamation. “Amalgamation” is Canadian for what we call city-county merger.

In 1997, the city of Hamilton and the county of Wentworth merged into the Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth.

In 2000, the Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth took the next step and merged with six suburban towns, analogous to our Tonawanda, Amherst, Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Lackawanna, and Hamburg.

Now it’s the Regional City of Hamilton. It took just four years to get it all done.

The consequences for the urban region have been pretty dramatic. Hamilton is, certainly, fortunate: It’s close to Toronto, even commutable. Its steel plants still make steel. Its port still brings in big freighters. But its old problems—a very ugly Mafia presence, lots of badly polluted sites, intractable poverty—have been managed better in an environment of managed cost. When Canadian economists like Enid Slack of the C.D. Howe Institute advise against sprawl and advise in favor of urban density, they count up all the costs (or “externalities”) that American planners and urban economists tend not to—because the Canadian analysts tend to ignore old municipal boundaries when calculating the impact of planning and management decisions on regions. Why? Simple: Economies straddle boundaries. And if boundaries interfere with economies, then boundaries need to go.

What municipal evolution hath wrought

In Ontario, concern over sprawl is not left to gadflies and environmentalists. It’s a matter of official action. This is probably because Ontario does not have an endless supply of land that can be put to agricultural use. For our neighbors, economic self-interest is the mother of all planning.

Planning. In the American vocabulary, the term “planning” has an anti-populist ring to it. “Planning” is something that elites do in order to force their elitist will on red-blooded Americans. “Planning” is alleged to be inconsistent with “freedom.” Just ask the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where worship of the late Austrian economist Fredrick Hayek, the father of all anti-planners, requires a daily rhetorical genuflection.

Governments do plan. Towns plan. But when they plan within their own tiny municipal boundaries, they screw up regions—because economies are regional. Economies cross municipal boundaries.

The Regional City of Hamilton has a regional plan. Everything is in the plan, which looks ahead to the year 2020: roads, public transit, sewers, where workspace is going to go, where people are going to live, green space, all of it. Check out the Web site for the GRIDS plan (the Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy) and you can see that it encompasses not just Hamilton and its immediate region, but the entire Niagara Peninsula.

That’s because it’s in Canada’s national interest—fiscal, economic, environmental, agricultural—to have affordable public services for a slowly but steadily growing population.

And there’s a bipartisan consensus. The Liberals under current Premiere Dalton McGuinty are opposed to suburban sprawl. The Conservatives under former Premiere Mike Harris—who put forth the Who Does What commission and who instructed, and facilitated, the Hamilton city-county merger—were also opposed to suburban sprawl.

The result: The province took action. The study commission was formed. Its report was released. Then its report was implemented.

A “state interest” in New York State

The Web site for Hamilton tells it all. Everything in government service is there: social services, roads, beaches, permits, real-estate matters—everything that used to be handled by the towns, the city, or the county is all handled by one entity now. It’s logical.

One of Giambra’s last legislative initiatives was a county-wide planning board. The legislation was the fruit of several years’ work that had begun with his re-creation of the two-county regional planning effort that his predecessor had spiked. The best anybody can determine, this first-ever proposal for a county-wide planning function—so that no subdivision, strip-mall, or other development could happen in Erie County anywhere but inside the area already served by existing sewer lines—is sitting in a file cabinet somewhere in the bowels of the Erie County Legislature.

But now there’s something even better than one county-level initiative. It’s the Lundine Commission report, and the aforementioned recommendation to enable city-county mergers—as well as this new gem of a legal interpretation of Home Rule.

Here’s the jewel: New York State, Lundine’s report says, can declare that an issue is a “state interest,” and instruct municipalities and school districts to undertake actions—including merger, consolidation, joint planning, and other innovations.

In the current New York State budget, about $1.5 billion of the state’s budget goes into general, unrestricted aid to local governments. (There are more than 4,500 units of government outside the nine-county New York City metropolitan area.)

Governor Paterson announced that he has a $5 billion to $7 billion deficit this year, and up to a $25 billion deficit over the coming four years.

Poverty would seem to be a legitimate concern of New York State.

Government duplication and fragmentation and expense would seem to be a legitimate concern of New York State, too, especially when regional economies suffer and cost the state more money.

Thus it would seem a fiscally opportune moment for the governor to instruct his administration that the recommendations of the Lundine Commission report (or the Pataki report, or the Cuomo report) should be implemented. Not only could he save some money, he could also start the process of ending the self-destruction that Upstate’s sprawling, shrinking urban regions seem committed to.

An example of successful amalgamation—and of Rust Belt recovery—is literally on our doorstep. For the price of an email to Ontario, Governor Paterson could ask some folks in Ontario to share their views on how to get it done here.

Notes and Links:

[1] Pendall, "Sprawl without growth," Brookings Institution report.

[2] Lundine Commission report, including the appended analysis of Home Rule in New York:

[3] The Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy plan:

[4] Hamilton website:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Regional City: testimony to the Lundine Commission

I applaud Stan Lundine and all his fellow members of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency, which just released its report.

As I'll report in Thursday's edition of Artvoice, a gubernatorial commission in New York State has once again recommended that the State make city-county merger easier.


Here in Erie County, we worked hard in 2004 to produce a draft statute, a very thorough memorandum of law and an easy-to-understand Powerpoint on the rationale, the process and the outcome of a merger of Buffalo and Erie County.

Just to make it easier for anybody who is interested in this effort, I will post those documents on this blog. There's also a fine memorandum of law that the Buffalo firm Hodgson Russ prepared on this same issue, a memorandum which completely confirmed our Erie County conclusion: that there is today no constitutional or statutory obstacle to achieving city-county merger in New York. Financial issues, yes. Constitutional prohibition? No.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Public transportation and the Suburbs

New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman is currently visiting Germany, where the automobiles are more fuel-efficient and the public transportation systems are much more deeply rooted in the landscape.

Krugman's column "Stranded in the suburbs" concludes, as I did in Artvoice last week, that far too many Americans are stuck with gas-guzzling SUVs and few alternatives but to keep driving them.

Why? Because there's no federal transportation policy except the one that subsidizes sprawl and leaves this country addicted to oil-guzzling personal transportation.

The map proves it: sprawl means stranding. Just look at the Buffalo area: 61% of Erie County's population lives outside the 42 square miles of Buffalo (the rapid transit begins and ends well within Buffalo's limits). You may search the map in vain for the trolley line that connects downtown to the airport, or the light-rail network that uses existing rights of way to connect to the university, the hospitals, the suburban shopping centers and the schools.

But of course, if you have the time, you can take the bus in our relatively compact region.

My 14-year-old daughter went to the Walden Galleria Mall on Sunday afternoon. When she and her pals finished, they caught one of the last hourly buses, at 7:08pm. They reached downtown by 7:51, then spent 25 minutes walking home. Had they waited until 8:15pm for the Delaware Avenue bus connection, the one-way bus trip would have taken an hour and 25 minutes. Fetching the kids for the 20-mile round trip would have taken at most 40 minutes.

There's not much mystery about where the median-income family will spend its $600 federal "economic stimulus" check. One expects that it won't be on bus passes.

All the more reason, then, to challenge President Obama or President McCain -- starting now -- on a new commitment to a mass-transit policy for every urban region. If we start in 2008, maybe we'll have some infrastructure in place by the end of the 44th president's second term.

In Berlin and throughout Europe after World War II, there was no alternative to public transportation. Street-cars and subways are the norm. The ironic long-term consequence of poverty and devastation is that Europeans do not depend upon cars the way rich, sprawling, un-ravaged and now stranded America does.