Yesterday’s clash between residents of the former City of Buffalo and Erie County officials was the most violent of the year, but it didn’t deter the authority chairman from declaring the latest Five-Year Plan as “an enormous success.”

According to the authority, government spending continues to be reduced, efficiency of service is up, unemployment is at record lows, and regional growth has surpassed expectations. The Five-Year Plan in question, while never presented in its entirety, did have several broad goals that appear to have been met, including developing new waterfront property, bringing more businesses and residents to outlying areas of Greater Erie County, and the controlled razing of portions of the former East Side of Buffalo.

“In short,” said the deputy chairman, “Every one of our goals from the last Five-Year Plan has been over-filled.” Meanwhile, outside the compound, a Best Street woman, who had been holding a dead infant and yelling at entering officials about unemployment, welfare, and food, set herself on fire and ran at a Channel 2 News cameraman, saying “They killed my baby girl, they killed my baby girl,” repeatedly. The Erie County Volunteer Fire Department was unable to respond in time, and the woman died, despite the attempts of many bystanders to smother the flames. Witnesses to the protest were shocked that those inside the Buffalo Club could be so unconcerned and callous to the needs of the tens of thousands of desperately poor people living within the boundaries of the former City of Buffalo. Some observers walking away from the scene were heard quietly sobbing to themselves and wondering aloud how what happened to their city. They were heard to ask, “Who could have known how bad it could truly get?”

Sound like hell?

It just may be what we here in the City of Buffalo could end up with in the next fifty years as local government is forced to function as a business with little or no concern for the needs and wants of the community. Luckily, no one can accurately forecast how bad it will get, and there’s still a chance to stop the city from being disemboweled.

Gutting the City

“Fixing Buffalo requires leveling the playing field,” said Common Councilmember-at-Large Charley Fisher III. “In the end, we need economic justice for the city.”

Others in the community, who work directly with those most in need of help, say that the democratic ideals this nation are supposed to embody have been torn from the community’s hands with the imposition of an unelected control board and the downsizing of legislative representation. “The control board represents the idea that we can get out of our current dilemma by cutting services and decreasing the quality of life in the city,” said Colin Eager of the Buffalo Coalition Against Poverty (BCAP). “If things continue like they are, we will have an empty, hostile city. People with means will continue to leave. All the schools will be closed, the fire houses will close, and you’ll be left with a lot of uneducated people running around with their heads on fire.”

Dan Ward, Amherst Town Board member and Democratic contender for Erie County executive, doesn’t see such drastic problems, but he has been at the forefront of efforts to change the way that the entire region does business. Ward, who would like to see taxes kept in check, said that he believes that revenue can be shared more equitably throughout the county. He has even decried his own town because it “ripped the economic guts out of Buffalo over the last twenty years.”

Many others have recently poked their heads into the public sphere to question the way that city government is being railroaded into a business-like model. They all appear to agree that government cannot and should not be run as a business because the two are very different things with different goals and challenges. These experts all agree that government isn’t all about getting and saving money; it involves service, community, and quality of life for the whole.

Meanwhile, some local notables continue to call for a financial and political dissolution of the City of Buffalo. Local newsweekly publisher Jamie Moses actually called for the controlled razing of large tracts of land that the city’s poorest people call home. This certainly may be leveling, but it’s of a different sort than that advocated by Fisher and others.

The World We Live In

A livable city isn’t all about business. Buffalo and, for that matter, the entire Buffalo-Niagara Region, is a toxic mess. Last week’s brief focus on Love Canal and Hickory Woods is ample evidence that the region cannot sell itself out to any company that wants to invest. Even those businesses that have no intention of pouring more toxins into the ground run into trouble as evidenced by a local developers’ discovery of mercury seeping from the soil of a proposed east side development site.

The Buffalo-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment sees environmental problems getting worse in the region because of financial difficulties and a lack of commitment to renewable energy sources. According to the organization’s program director, Brian Smith, there are many unaddressed toxic sites in the Buffalo-Niagara region, a problem that is accelerating as environmental programs are defunded.

“Although improvements have been made,” Smith said, “The (Bush) administration’s roll-back of federal environmental regulations has made it harder for progress to continue. When states face budget deficits, the first things to go are often environmental programs.”

And it’s not just the soil. Sitting at the eastern end of the world’s largest fresh water basin used to be a boon for the Buffalo-Niagara region. Now it’s become a bit of a bust, due to a combination of pollution, the introduction of alien species, climate changes, water sales, and even sprawl, according to a variety of experts.

Groups ranging from the somewhat alarmist Union of Concerned Scientists to the Army Corps of Engineers have noted falling water levels in all the Great Lakes, a pattern that most scientists attribute to global warming, according to Reg Gilbert of Great Lakes United and a variety of Canadian newspaper reports.

Gilbert said there were two main concerns for Lake Erie water levels. They are climate change, due to global warming and dead zones, areas where fish and other water life cannot live, due to increased algae levels. According to Gilbert, the most recent studies show that about two-thirds of the lake was a dead zone at the end of 2002. Experts say that the two problems are closely related and that evaporation rates are outpacing precipitation ranks as one of the highest concerns.

Experts also point to sprawl as a major contributor to lower water levels and higher pollution. As falling water lands in parking lots and roadways, it then has to make its way through the sewer system before it ends up in the watershed area. This means that the water takes longer to reach lakes and rivers and that sewage processing can get overloaded, forcing a dump of virtually unprocessed water.

“You find a lot of communities, like the Niagara region, have population loss but increased land use,” Gilbert said. “We can all agree that a tablespoon of feces in the lake doesn’t matter, but how much is too much?”

With predictions ranging from a five- to twenty-five foot drop in Lake Erie water levels over the next fifty years, this all adds up to a smaller lake with inevitably higher concentrations of pollution, algae, and invasive species, such as zebra mussels. While there may be new waterfront property to develop due to lowered water levels, future residents may never be safe swimming in or drinking from those waters again.

Lack of Creativity and Commitment

The recent decision to place yet another long-serving state official in charge of day-to-day operations of the fiscal control board reeks of irresponsibility. Dorothy Johnson, the new executive director of the control board, brings with her 14 years of watching Western New York slide helplessly into economic oblivion while her superiors forced unfunded mandate after unfunded mandate upon the region, county, and city. Obviously, her ability to bring local concerns to the state table is limited, despite the apparent infatuation with her that some local politicians have expressed to The Buffalo News.

The control board has yet to appoint any community leaders, and is made up of many of the same people who have actively or passively watched Buffalo decline. These are the same people who got us here and are now running the show, to the tune of $1.2 million, in a governmental body that is undemocratic and unrepresentative of the city’s constituents. “No one imagined this board would cost us $1.2 million,” said the soon-to-be-downsized Fisher. “If voters had known that behind this would be a control board that cost more than the money saved by downsizing the council, I don’t think they would have voted for it. Even if the state foots the bill, we taxpayers are still going to pay for it.”

While a better future is imaginable, reality demands we face facts to achieve it. Placing hope in business-focused economics hasn’t ever worked for the masses, and it isn’t going to do the trick this time.

“The only way we’ll get out of this is community organization,” Eager said. “The government has abandoned us to the wolves or it has become the wolf itself.” Reaction and Reality: Another View from the Future

By Brendan Coyne

The Greater Erie County Authority’s monthly press conference, a two-hour long semi-public affair known as “Details and Cocktails,” was disrupted yesterday by thousands of local citizens who rushed the gates of the prestigious Buffalo Club to speak out against closed-door decision-making in local politics. The protesters attempted to turn over cars as they pulled into the parking lot. Several scaled the fence and others threw rocks and bottles at event goers until Erie County Sheriff’s deputies fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd to disperse it. Eleven of the protesters were killed, more than 1,000 were arrested, and hundreds of others were taken to Erie County Public/Private Medical Center for treatment of injuries.