For ten years, it has been generally accepted that the size and cost of local government impair economic growth in Western New York. But widespread acknowledgment that the weight of our system holds us down has yet to lead to an effective strategy to fix the problem.
At the 1997 Chautauqua governance conference, community leaders from vibrant regions across America described their formulas for success. Their common denominator was effective and efficient government, which helped create dynamic economies even in those areas with inclement climates or remote geographic locations.
The 1997 Conference gave rise to wide-spread discussion and effort at reform. Those efforts failed. But the burden on citizens remains: an expensive, overlapping local government system, worsened by state government dysfunction. In the past decade, its ill effects on our area economy have deepened.
This past spring, I asked myself two questions. First, why did the decade-long, citizen-led movement to reform local government in Buffalo Niagara fail? And second, what could I do to breathe new life into the effort?
Reform efforts failed because creating consensus for change in our community is next to impossible. And the chief reason for that difficulty is our inordinately large number of politicians.
With 439 elected officials throughout Erie County - each with individual purposes, powers, and views - accountable leadership, or just plain leadership, has eluded us.
The cost of this "political class," expressed in lost opportunities for development and change, is immeasurable. But the path to future change begins with an understanding of the present price of our current system. To reach that understanding, and to re-energize the debate, this project examines that cost.
Our Research Methods
The information contained herein represents a five-month effort.
I began initial research last spring, comparing the number of politicians in our region to other areas throughout the nation. I focused on comparably-sized regions which have more successful economies.
This past summer, I assembled and then oversaw a team of student researchers provided by the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law. We organized into teams of 2, and divided the 47 jurisdictions among us.
Our beginning, primary source material was the adopted budget for each village, town, city, and county. In the majority of municipalities, we reviewed the budget for fiscal year 2006. When that was not available, we used the most recently adopted budget.
Fiscal practices and procedures varied widely among towns and villages. Larger towns follow more generally accepted budget practices. Smaller villages at times utilize less formal procedures. As a result, the only way to insure that we obtained accurate information was to visit every village hall, town hall, city hall, and county hall in Erie County.
Some of these visits were with formal appointments. Others were impromptu walk-ins. All of them are documented and recorded as to date, government official with whom we spoke, and information obtained.
In the vast majority of cases, government officials extended every cooperation and guidance (See, Appendix A "Researchers' Narratives"). This was particularly true of staff-level employees, who went out of their way to assist our researchers. For their kind assistance, we are most grateful.
When certain municipalities resisted, we filed Freedom of Information Act or Freedom of Information Law requests for relevant data (See, Appendix B, "Freedom of Information Act documentation").
Obtaining information on medical insurance, health care, retirement, and pension benefits offered the greatest challenge. In smaller jurisdiction, these costs are not expressed in the adopted budgets, but rather in legislative history, meeting minutes, etc. Where documentation was not available or provided, we relied on interviews with budget, payroll, or personnel officials (See, "Research and Interviews" footnotes, which appear after and specifically source the data contained in each municipality's spreadsheet).
In order to give a clear and accurate cost of sustaining the political class, we included the expense of their immediate staff. Only those employees who work directly and exclusively for the elected official were included. If a staff member served both an elected and appointed official (i.e., a secretary who performed services for the town supervisor and the town economic development director), we excluded that person from our calculations.
Health Care Benefits
This research followed a two-step process. First, we determined whether an elected official or staff member was full or part-time. Part-time employees receive no health care benefits. With full-time officials, we inquired whether they participated in the government plan or not, and if they did, whether they accepted individual or family coverage. Each of these considerations affected the cost to taxpayers.
In instances in which we received conflicting information, we used the lower amount; in instances where no information was forthcoming, even after repeated requests, we included no amount.
New York State is well known for its complex and costly retirement pension system. In addition to its complexity, we learned first-hand of practices and procedures that complicate obtaining specific information and amounts.
Indeed, this past summer, the New York State legislature adopted regulations that impose new sanctions on local municipalities that refuse to share pension information with citizens. While we were unable to avail ourselves of these new regulations (they have yet to take effect), we used their spirit to encourage cooperation.
In instances where neither budget, legislative history, nor government official interviews yielded dependable pension information, we applied the standard New York State formula of 3% of salary. This percentage is paid to those in the lowest "tier" in government.
Concurrent with the release of this report, we have established an interactive website, www.TheCost.org. By visiting the site and selecting their municipality, citizens can learn the cost of their local politicians, as well as their share of the aggregate cost of local, state, and federal politicians. The entire report is also available on the site.
Through their extraordinary work and dedication, my UB Law School student researchers contributed to the creation of this report, and they share in any credit that may come its way. However, I am solely responsible for any errors. If any reader has a question or comment concerning this report, kindly let me know by e-mail at Kevin@KevinGaughan.com.
I am deeply grateful to these students, an exceptional group possessed of great intellect, integrity, and humor. I learned more from them than I could have ever hoped to impart. This report is dedicated to them, and all their peers, in the hope that it may induce reforms that will create a local economy that can sustain and keep them here at home.