Town creates task forces to implement principles of good government

(Orchard Park/East Aurora Sun. 19April14)

I would like to accomplish two things in this article: [1] identify the principles of good government, and [2] demonstrate those principles at work in your local government.

[1] There are those who would restrict government activity to providing only those services which individuals cannot provide for themselves – a Darwinian-like “survival of the fittest” form of government, if you will. Some go so far as to portray government as an enemy to be kept on a very tight leash. To be sure, and consistent with the overall disposition of the founders of our country, a healthy suspicion of government is wise. It was precisely against an obvious Darwinian form of government, where ‘might makes right’ the oppression of the weak and vulnerable, that our founders reacted.
We must be vigilant, however, to make sure that our suspicion doesn’t unknowingly and unintentionally place democracy itself on a short leash by limiting its ability to be responsive to the ever changing needs, interests and desires of the public it is elected to represent and serve. A “government of the people, by the people, for the people” must – if it be an authentic democracy – carry out the will of the people. In his famous 1860 Cooper Union address Abraham Lincoln insisted that it is, instead, ‘right that makes might’ whenever government champions the rights of all to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I submit that it is these indispensable principles, and not one’s own ideology, that make for good government.

[2] How do these principles relate to your local government? Space limits me to two examples. Earlier this year we formed the Senior Services Task Force and charged it to first assess and prioritize the needs of our senior citizens, then investigate solutions for addressing those needs, and finally to make some recommendations. This task force just provided their first report to the Town Board. Let me encourage you to read that report. It can be accessed on the Town’s web page (orchardparkny.org). Their methodology and thoroughness are commendable. In the not too distant future we must, as a people, that is, as a community, arrive at determinations – a collective will – regarding the right things to do in behalf of this growing population in Orchard Park.

Earlier this week, secondly, the Town Board authorized the formation of a Government Efficiencies Task Force. Similar to the charge given to the Senior Services Task Force, this new team will assess the services whereby the needs and expectations of our residents are addressed, identify variables in the government ecosystem that can be optimized so as to reduce costs while enhancing the operational efficiency with which services are delivered, and, where expedient, assist in the redesigning of the systems and processes through which our government services are provided, including shared services and consolidation.

Whereas it is anticipated that this latest initiative will contribute to the Town Board’s intention to satisfy the requirements of the Real Property Tax Freeze Credit in the recently adopted NYS budget, it is not a direct and/or deliberate response to it. It is, rather, an initiative that we have intended to roll out in support of one of the goals we identified at our State of the Town Address two months ago, namely, that of implementing strategic planning. It is our duty, as elected public servants, to champion our residents’ liberty and pursuit of happiness by providing the greatest value for their tax dollars.


Thoughts, Observations From the Desk of Orchard Park Councilman

(Orchard Park/East Aurora Sun, 29Mar14)

Throughout the better part of 2013, the year I decided to run for office, I was continually asked “why.” Quite often I could sense another unspoken question lurking, “have a few more cards fallen out of your already thin deck.” Since being sworn in to serve on the Orchard Park Town Board, that question has morphed into, “what’s it like,” leaving me to wonder whether I am being asked about what it’s like to serve as a council member, or what it’s like to have a few less cards. Most times I have thought it best not ask which, precisely, they were wondering about. In any event, finishing up the first quarter of this year strikes me as a good time to reflect upon my experience thus far as a politician, both practically and personally.   

It has been very, very busy. There is so much to do in order to maintain the tradition of excellence in governance in Orchard Park, as well as to improve further upon that excellence. And whereas I have been publicly outspoken about Governor Cuomo’s proposed tax freeze – I can’t help it; the oath I first took as a police officer 25 years ago in which I swore to protect the community of Orchard Park and the rights of our citizens remains inviolable for me – I do agree that there is always more that we can and need to do in order to become more efficient in government. We are determined to manage the Town’s business strategically and innovatively.

To that end we have already implemented some new procedures with a view to streamlining and enhancing operations and communications in a number of areas. At the first ever State of Orchard Park Address we not only identified the values and/or priorities by which we will seek to carry out the work of and in behalf of our community, we also unveiled some significant goals for 2014. An example is the developing of comprehensive strategic plans at the department level, something already underway. You will hear more about these kinds of things as they come on line. If you were not there, or have not had an opportunity to read the Address, let me encourage you to do so. It can be found on the Town’s web site.

At the personal level, I expect that some might be surprised to observe how well Supervisor Patrick Keem, Council Member Gene Majchrzak and I work together. I use the word “surprised” because it is generally assumed that politicians are all about themselves. It goes without saying that each of us has our own shortcomings and predilections, that is, personal inclinations and mental outlook. These have and will continue to lead to differences of opinion. We are human persons after all. But I have found that each of us believes in difference as something to be embraced rather than to be avoided or cast aside. Our differences have helped us to arrive at the best decisions, and not just acceptable or even good ones.

Contrary to the ideologues who too often seem to get the attention in our society, it is our mutual commitment to pursuing the good of those we have been elected to serve – their needs, their values, their expectations, instead of our own personal beliefs and agendas – that enables us to arrive at the kinds of agreement that arise from the use of reason and practical application.

This kind of openness and dedication in my fellow Board members has made my new role thus far busy, but quite enjoyable.


Cuomo Proposal Hurts Communities

(Orchard Park Bee, 27Mar14)

At last week’s Town Board work session the potential impact of Governor Cuomo’s “tax freeze” proposal was discussed with Village Mayor Wilson and Trustee Wales. It was determined that we had a responsibility to build awareness among our residents about his proposal. Understand, we are not only strongly in favor of a tax freeze, but of a reduction in the absurd level of mandatory property taxes we pay. And although property taxes are collected by local governments, typically the smallest portion goes to the local municipal government – only 13% in our case. Furthermore, annual increases in expenditures have averaged only 1.1% for the past 7 audited years.

Under the Governor’s proposal homeowners will receive a small tax rebate this and next year if we stay under the 2% tax cap and develop a plan for progressively reducing taxes by 1, 2 and 3%, respectively, each of the succeeding three years through County-approved shared services and consolidations.  There is no allowance, maladroitly, for what may already be in place. Consequently, because of the diligence of our Town and Village boards through the years, Orchard Park has less it can cut, therein making us susceptible to a “failure to achieve planned savings (which) could result in recapture of State aid to the local government,” according to the proposed budget. This recapturing of aid – that is, the returning of a very small portion of our own tax dollars – would be in spite of the increasing cost of providing local services as the years pass, not to mention the reduction in aid Orchard Park has already experienced under Governor Cuomo.

His proposal to extort consolidations will make the providing of those quality services which our residents expect even more challenging. It will also restrict our freedom of choice as a local community. As always, we will do our best.


Cuomo’s proposed tax cap, tax freeze would be bad for local governments

(Orchard Park/East Aurora Sun, 15Mar14)

On the surface Governor Cuomo’s tax cap and proposed tax freeze would seem to be welcome developments. But in reality they do next to nothing to abate property taxes in NY State, among the highest in the nation.

Let’s be clear: local governments are not the root cause of high property taxes; unfunded/underfunded state mandates are. Only 13% of the taxes Orchard Park residents pay go directly toward the services which the Town and Village provide for us. We shouldn’t get too excited about what will amount to a minuscule refund when what we need is a real break in the tax burden which NY State inflicts upon us through its mandates.

The Governor’s secretary recently suggested that “It’s clear that some local officials don’t want to be held accountable by the taxpayers… (by) taking action to share services, reduce costs and lower property taxes.” But in Orchard Park our tax rate increases have been kept at or below a 2% rate for more than a decade, and the Town and the Village have long shared some services. And like Orchard Park, many communities are already tight to the budgeting bone, infinitely closer than the State can claim to be. In the absence of real and immediate mandate relief, his initiatives will force many communities to cut into that bone, resulting in diminished services, and even destroying their financial viability.

Local property tax rates could easily be cut were the governor to cut the state mandates which property taxes pay for. Instead, the governor is proposing that local governments cut the small portion of their budgets which they actually have control over. Why? Allow me to suggest that by waving a small carrot in front of tax-emaciated residents, the governor achieves two things.

First, the potential refund serves as a diversionary tactic whereby he can avoid responsibility for our high taxes by shifting the focus to local governments. If enacted as law, secondly, his proposal is well-suited to forcing his regionalism plan upon us, a philosophy of government that is also espoused by our County Executive. Keep in mind that counties are, by law, an administrative arm of the State. So under the governor’s tax freeze proposal counties will be the arbiters as to whether or not local communities are achieving the kinds and degree of consolidation and savings that will qualify their residents for a refund.

While I’m all for a regionalist approach involving communities ‘collaborating’ together to provide more efficient and effective services and to promote economic growth, I am leery when the word and concept is that of ‘consolidation,’ that is, the combining of what is distinct into a unified whole. Consolidation will in fact aggregate local control in favor of the county and state. In addition to the inevitable reallocation of taxes outside of our local community, it will compromise our voice as well as our right to self-governance and self-determination at the local level. Centralized government brings in its wake less citizen access to and, consequently, less control over and accountability for that government.

In this matter I’m reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to perform best.”


The governor should point the finger back at himself

(Buffalo News, 14Mar14)

I recently caught a commercial on TV in which Governor Cuomo is actually using the fact of New York State having some of the highest real property taxes in the nation to promote himself. Think about it. He is the governor of a state in which our property taxes are out of hand while local governments – villages, towns and school districts – are left begging for some relief from the state imposed mandates which occasion the lion’s share of our local property taxes. What does he do? Instead of controlling costs at the state level so as to give relief to local governments and the communities they serve, he flips things on their head and blames those local governments which, by law, must collect the excessive property taxes state mandates necessitate.

When I saw the commercial, I could not help but note the similarity between the governor’s spin and how my children often treated their mother up through their teenage years. Instead of taking responsibility for their own failures, they blamed her – whether they neglected to get out of bed on time, or to get their homework done, or bring something with them, etc. Mom was the one who should have done that something which they did not do themselves. Even so, the governor’s “No Excuses” tax freeze initiative is ultimately blaming local governments for what is by and large a state problem.

How fortunate I was to live in a home where my parents led by example. And thank goodness my own children have matured beyond the blame-someone-else stage of life. How regrettable that apparently one does not have to grow up and own up in the house of politics.


Governor Should Offer An Apology, Not Excuses

(Buffalo News, February 2014)

When my three children were very young, most evenings I would pick them up, put them on my lap and ask them what they wanted to talk about. Over the years, our early discussions about toys and playtime morphed into full-blown debates. My future son-in-law coined the phrase, “Sunday at the Sherrys,” to express the open give-and-take discussions about almost any issue – political, social, moral – that he found himself exposed to.

In our now extended family the dignity and opinion of every person is more than respected, it is cherished, even though we often disagree and it may be the one against the many. Our discussions require four things: a willingness to let the other person speak; a desire to really listen to and weigh what is said; the use of reason; and mutual respect. This does not mean that each of us has not, from time to time, failed to adhere to one or more of these rules. But when they are broken, the offender arrives at the point of apologizing.

I cannot imagine telling one of my children that there is no longer room for their opinions or their presence in my household because they are not in agreement with my views. So I was taken back by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s declaration that “extreme conservatives … have no place” in our state. His remarks reflect either the carelessness of a heart that gave birth to their condescending, polarizing and chilling sentiment, or the carelessness of a mind that articulated its thought so badly. I choose to assume that it is the latter.

A straight-up apology, not mere explanations and excuses, would not only mitigate the offense and divisive effect, it would affirm both Cuomo’s station and his humanity.


Business As Usual Is No Longer Tolerable

(Buffalo News, March 2013)

In spite of the best efforts of many of our local governments, the unemployment rate in WNY is now above 9% and most communities continue to deal with budget deficits and the need to raise taxes. This depressing reality reminds me of the saying – when the federal government sneezes state governments catch a cold; and when state governments catch a cold local governments take to their beds. I suggest that given the extent of our rising federal and state deficits, in conjunction with the non-funded mandates and imposed regulations from the federal and state governments, our local governments have just begun to climb into their beds. And although some of the worst effects of the recession are showing signs of improvement in our national economy, we must not forget that there is always a delay from the time commercial organizations emerge from an economic downturn and public funds recover. The road to full recovery for the public sector, therefore, will be a long and treacherous one, especially at the local level.

If we are to weather this economic malaise which is likely to continue for many years, our local governments simply must deliver more value with less money. This will require them to cut costs and become leaner and more efficient without suffering any degradation in services; no, while delivering the improved services the public demands. Business as usual is no longer tolerable. The time has come for the people’s business to be strategically and innovatively managed instead of being transacted according to past practice. Now more than ever our local governments must do the right work, the right way, with the right leadership.


Americans Have a Duty to Make Informed Choices

(Buffalo News, September 2012)

For anyone paying attention to the respective political campaigns, the operative word is “choice.” Wrapping themselves in the hallowed words about our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” each party affirms that they are the right choice. Most of us realize, however, that the exercising of our rights, especially our right to choose, cannot be reduced to the few simple arguments, selective statistics and anecdotal solutions which each camp has served up. Or do we?

Life, liberty and happiness are not mere words; they enshrine complex national values and responsibilities. Whereas we should be free to choose for ourselves that which we believe will enhance our personal lives, liberty and happiness, we must not exercise that freedom unreflectively or, worse yet, carelessly. My freedom of speech does not mean I can shout out “fire” in a crowded theatre because I want to laugh out loud (LOL) at the ensuing panic which one little word can produce in others.

It follows that for an American to make a choice based exclusively upon her or his own rights without having measured the impact which that decision might have upon others is antithetical to the values and responsibilities which gave birth to this country. Furthermore, from today’s hot topic issues of the economy and war to health care and abortion, reliance upon a singular argument, solution or demand of personal right betrays a willingness to disregard the same inalienable rights others have to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is as true of political candidates as it is of those who will exercise their right to vote. As Americans we have a twofold responsibility towards one-another when we make our choice: to be as fully informed as possible, and to be considerate of everyone’s rights, not just our own.


Let’s Focus on What’s Best for the People, Our Nation

(Buffalo News, August 2012)

In less than 100 days we will be electing new representatives to our governments. Our respective political parties are busy tweaking their “platforms” – a list of actions and beliefs in favor of or in opposition to significant social policies – for the big push this fall. It is also the time of the year when our governments are preparing their budgets. Make no mistake about it, at their core elections and budgets reveal as much, if not more, about the people’s needs and values than they do about the politicians themselves. Given the ongoing financial climate it is no surprise that money, especially in the form of taxes, will be ‘the’ determining factor for who gets elected and what budgets are adopted. It follows that the election and budgetary results, i.e., money, will reflect our collective needs and values.

So in the midst of all the political jockeying, commercials and rhetoric we will be subjected to, how can we clarify what our greatest needs and values should be, as individuals, communities and as a nation? I propose that we hold up the opening words of our Constitution like a beacon – WE THE PEOPLE. Our elections and budgets should be neither ends in themselves, nor chiefly about the individual. They should be, first and foremost, means for securing our nation’s Declaration in behalf of the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” for ourselves and our posterity. We should be asking the question: what are the needs of that which is of greatest value to us and our nation, namely, the PEOPLE? Through our elections and budgets, the people’s platform if you will, we can act in behalf of and believe in others. Put another way, we can do unto others as we would have them do unto us.


Honoring our Mothers and Fathers in Orchard Park

(Orchard Park Bee, July 2012)

In spite of the financial difficulties being experienced by all communities these days, it is indeed heartening to read of Supervisor Colarusso’s leadership in behalf of our senior citizens and their pursuit of a new center. Let us hope that our community will find the creative ability and willingness to satisfy their need. For if we were to inquire after the identity of our elderly neighbors we would have to acknowledge that they are the women and men who for years worked and paid taxes to make this community we love and inherited what it is today. Our seniors are, quite simply, the collective mothers and fathers in our midst.

If we, as individuals and as a community, were to consider what is noblest in human beings and relationships we would find that supreme goodness to consist in our ability to actively care for others, and to do so not simply with what we have left over, but especially when it will cost us something. In other words, what is noblest in and among us is our willingness to give sacrificially to others; a husband and wife to each other, both to their children, and as the years roll by, children making sacrifices in behalf of their parents.

A long time ago the question was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer was not what was expected – our neighbor is the one whose need calls for our sacrificial response. And a long time before that a list of commandments, of ethical principles, was given for managing relationships – personal and communal. Surely it was no accident that the first principle given for communal relationships is to “honor your father and your mother.” So let us continue to be neighborly and noble; let us honor the mothers and fathers within our community with our support.


Downsizing Government

(OP Press, November 2011)

A number of communities in the Western New York region have voted to downsize their governing boards. One such community, West Seneca, has already begun to feel the impact of that decision, while another community, our own (Orchard Park), is about to. Kevin Gaughan, who has been the leading advocate behind downsizing in Western New York, predicated his case upon the alleged dual benefits of financial savings and greater representation. Whereas the financial numbers support his first claim regarding costs, I beg to differ with his second claim regarding greater representation.

To begin with, as a citizen I will now have less representation in that there are fewer board members. This too is a simple matter of numbers. More importantly, however, I submit that Mr. Gaughan’s model appears to contradict the model set up by our Country’s founding fathers. In their model we do not find decision-making authority concentrated in the hands of the few, but in the hands of the many – a president, and two branches of congress. Given the nature of a democracy, summed up in the words, “We the people,” how can a concentration of power facilitate greater representation? Furthermore, it stands to reason that fewer decision-makers runs contrary to the notion of checks and balances. When it comes to matters relating to quality of life, including finances, communities do not want good decisions, they want the best. And in most instances, many heads make for better decisions.

I do not recall Mr. Gaughan addressing the matters of efficiency and effectiveness. In this very difficult period of time, more work will now be placed upon fewer people. What is worse, as I understand it, the supervisor and two remaining council members will not be able to speak to each other out side of formal sessions. This will limit the opportunity to accomplish the work of the people, which portends less efficiency and/or effectiveness. Having been in a position to know most of our council members over the course of the past 31 years, I can honestly say that our Board has consistently done an outstanding job overseeing the affairs of our community. This observation brings two other adages to mind: “if it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it,” and, “penny wise and dollar foolish.”

Perhaps we need to re-examine our recent indifference with respect to the downsizing of our Town Board for the purpose of saving a very few dollars. I regret to say that I am one of the vast majority that neglected to vote on this matter. Mea culpa – “my bad.”


Democracy in Action

(Orchard Park Bee, November 2011)

I attended the most recent Town Board meeting. For more than 90 minutes citizen after citizen stepped forward to express their opinion with respect to the potential downsizing of the police department. Council members subsequently responded to citizen concerns by affirming the police department as both an asset and a significant expense for the community. All were unanimous on one point: the police department is part of the very fabric of our community. It directly impacts the pride and quality of life that our citizens derive from living in Orchard Park.

As a recently retired, second generation police officer to serve in Orchard Park, a twofold wave of pride came over me. The first relates to the recognition citizens, including all Council members, were bestowing upon our police department. I know the high caliber men and women of our police department. For them police work is more than a job, and Orchard Park is much more than a community they serve. It is their community, their extended home. It was so immensely satisfying to see their affection for and commitment to Orchard Park reciprocated by the community they live in and serve.

The second aspect in which I took great pride was the way in which this meeting took place. Citizens and Board members alike spoke with sincerity, reason and respect. In other words, all spoke without the acrimony and drama we are constantly fed on TV and typically subjected to in politics. It was so very encouraging to watch this kind of democracy in action and think about the lesson in civil debate that the many children present were receiving. I was reminded of that all but lost adage, “it takes a village to raise a child.” On this evening, Orchard Park was indeed such a village.


Both Parties Must Put People’s Interests First

(Buffalo News, November 2011)

Locally, pro-union democrat Mark Poloncarz defeats incumbent republican Chris Collins. Nationally, an anti-union piece of republican legislation is soundly defeated in Ohio. Having accomplished what he promised when he came into office four years ago, namely, to change the dismal financial picture in Erie County, in his concession speech County Executive Collins indicated that he was not sure as to what his defeat meant. What message were voters sending? Former County Executive Joel Giambra says that it’s time for Republicans to change their message.

Let me suggest that it’s not about crafting a political message that is attractive to voters. Rather, it is about having the right mission. Perhaps we have begun to uncover the main short-coming of running government in accord with a “business” model. At the risk of over-simplification, within the business world the primary mission is financial. The result is that people, both workers and consumers, are necessary for the generation of wealth. In other words, people become secondary means to the end of economic advantage.

So what may be the voter message? It is really quite simple. Make sure that “we the people” are first. Make it your unconfused mission to enhance the quality of life for all the people whom you are elected to serve. Many voters are willing to risk a less financially efficient government so long as it is effective in providing the conditions and environment which enhance the quality of life within their communities and in our country. As individuals and communities we are often willing to do without in order to walk side-by-side with our neighbors as together we pursue that happiness which the founders of our Country had in mind.

So whereas “we the people” want leaders with business know-how, we do not necessarily want leaders who appear to be all business.


Town Should Ask Community What It Expects of Police Force

(Buffalo News, October 2011)

Over the course of the past month, the same question has been variously put to me: Why do I think the Orchard Park Town Board is going after its own Police Department? The question presupposes a malicious or at least wrong-headed intent, one that I can dismiss out of hand. These are tough and uncertain financial times, so the Town Board must be especially attentive to its fiduciary responsibilities by assessing the operational efficiency and effectiveness of all its departments.

I suspect that the often-put question arises from a potential inconsistency between the leadership role and style of our elected officials and the course this assessment appears to have taken thus far. Our elected officials are to exercise a servant-leadership within communities. A servant first ascertains the interests, desires and will of the people he serves, and is at pains to remain accessible, transparent and accountable in the course of his ensuing service.
This kind of leadership begs two questions of the Town Board members. Have they first ascertained the interests and will of the community for its Police department, without which they are in no position to determine if any other law enforcement agency has the appropriate resources for satisfying the many distinctive needs and desires of our community? The second question is closely related. Has the Town Board been at pains to remain accessible, transparent and accountable throughout the course of this assessment? As a resident of this community, I’m not getting that impression.

With all due respect, I would like to challenge the Town Board members to more fully demonstrate the servant-leadership they have been entrusted with. Find creative ways to ask the community what its expectations of the Police Department are. And become more accessible, transparent and accountable as you go about fulfilling those expectations.