WBFO Listener Commentaries
10:10 am
Tue November 25, 2008

Commentary: Obama's Metro Focus Long Overdue

Buffalo, NY – There's a new advocate for regionalism in America.

His name is President-elect Barack Obama.

It didn't get much attention during the campaign season, but our next president has put forward a very detailed agenda to renew America's cities and metropolitan regions. He is committed to creating a brand- new White House office of Urban Policy.

Go to our new President's website and see for yourself. And there you will see how serious he is about fixing cities, but also about fixing regions, including older suburbs that in too many cases are facing the same problems as our troubled older cites. The President-elect says "many federal programs inadvertently undermine cities and regions by encouraging inefficient and costly patterns of development and local competition."

That's a genuine regionalist talking.

I for one am delighted. For all the years we worked on regionalism in County government -- drafting a law to merge Buffalo and Erie County; building a computer system that could handle all the back-office operations of all the cities and towns and villages; building the public safety campus to handle all the e-911 calls from Cattaraugus Creek to Tonawanda Creek -- we still had a big problem called Federal policy. The Federal government and the State government too still treat city governments and town governments and county governments as if they can all go it alone, as if they are on separate planets rather than side by side in the same metro region.

Like when it comes to Homeland Security funding, the Federal government hands out money jurisdiction by jurisdiction, as if a terrorism threat, or a snowstorm for that matter, would start or end at a municipal boundary.

The same with sewers. Federal project money comes not to regional watersheds, but to individual districts.

The good news is that we now have a President who gets it - that we are a nation of metropolitan regions. Our metropolitan economies cross municipal boundaries. Our wastewater needs, our public transit needs all do too, and so do our problems of crime and poverty and land-use. They all happen to regions, not just individual municipalities.

But let's be clear. The White House has a lot of power, but old habits and old local laws have a lot of power, too. Old boundaries won't just fade away.

And don't hold your breath waiting for some federal laws to fade away, either. Those terrible 1970s Supreme Court decisions on desegregation that mandated desegregation within the narrow old boundaries of cities - they won't suddenly be overturned.

Home rule will still rule.

And here in New York State, if we want regionalism, it's not going to take a village or a town or a county or a city - even if we have the president, it'll still take a governor.

Because state law is where regionalism either happens or doesn't.

Now Governor Paterson has a fiscal crisis on his hands. I say, let's not waste the crisis - let's put consolidation and merger and regionalism on the table when the three kings of Albany meet in their closed room. Why should Albany stick us with control boards that won't force regional management of basic services? Why should our President say "metro" and our Governor say "retro"?

We'll see about Paterson come his budget next April. But in the mean time, on January 20th, we're going to have the Obama White House and its new office of Urban Policy.

The days of cities pitted against suburbs for road funds and sewer funds and police funds could be numbered, and I'm excited.

Imagine -- a policy office that is driven by the mentality that cities and suburbs are in it together.

Wow. We voted for change. Apparently, we're going to get it.

Listener Commentator Bruce Fisher is a columnist for Artvoice and a visiting professor of Economics and Finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.