A Buffalo News editorial details the recent hiring of a politically connected operative at the Erie County Water Authority (ECWA) for an administrative position, at a salary of $132,000. The editorial notes that these sorts of things have often happened at the ECWA. The News recommends that the three commissioners be temporarily be replaced by “professional managers” until the Authority itself can be abolished.
Parts of my working career included political appointments, so I am not going to cast aspersions on this most recent ECWA appointment. But the fact is that there are other, more direct ways to fill and manage such decisions. And maybe save a few dollars along the way.
As an Amherst resident the water that is used in our house is supplied by the ECWA. The water tastes fine, looks fine, and seems reasonably priced, although admittedly I have nothing to compare it with.
I do not know the most recently appointed ECWA commissioner, Robert Anderson, but I do know the other two commissioners, Jerry Schad and Earl Gann. They are both honest and intelligent men capable of making good decisions. But that is not the issue at hand.
The website of the Authority reports that the 2015 budget total $81.1 million, not the $68.3 million total that the News cites. I’d go with the Authority’s number. The News states that there are 235 employees.
The ECWA website also has an org chart that shows they operate with departments or offices devoted to human resources, purchasing, accounting, budget, legal services, information services and data processing. By an amazing coincidence, so does Erie County government, which operates with more than 4,000 employees.
When I served as budget director for Dennis Gorski from 1997 until 1999 we presented three consecutive budgets to the Legislature that cut spending compared with the previous year – you can look it up. Dennis was devoted to fiscal frugality, so we looked for every opportunity we could find to cut spending. And yes, there was some politics going on in Erie County government then. And before then, and since then.
For the most part, the things that Erie County government does are things that only a government can do, such as social services, public health, road work. The service provided by the ECWA is also an appropriate government function. Which means that it should be delivered at the lowest possible cost.
While county government salaries, except for countywide officeholders, are pretty good, there aren’t any positions paying $132,000 for a second level staffer running any department. And while adding some additional activities to county administrative offices like personnel, purchasing, IT and so forth might add some small additional burden to existing county departments, minor tweaks would take care of the extra work that might be added on. There is considerable administrative overlap between Erie County government and the ECWA.
While I can understand the News’ concern about politics at the ECWA, I would go at it from a different angle. Let’s emphasize the financial. Maybe the cost of our water is reasonable, but that doesn’t mean the costs cannot be brought down. No stipends for board members and more reasonable administrative costs are certainly doable. A footnote to that: state government eliminated all or most stipends for members of various state boards more than 20 years ago.
The ECWA was created by a special act of the State Legislature in 1949. I don’t know more about the history of that law, but it came at a time when some forward thinking was going on by local political leaders. The county library system developed soon after the ECWA was created. The ECWA probably served a good purpose for a time, but that time was before the county charter form of government was established more than 50 years ago. It’s time to bring things up-to-date.
So why not a community effort to eliminate the ECWA and simply make it a department of county government? It’s not exciting like tearing down toll barriers, but it can certainly do some good. Some leaders like Carl Paladino, Dave Swarts, Mike Powers and others showed what can be done when people put their minds to work on the toll barriers issue. It is time for some member of the State or County Legislature to step up and take the lead on this.
There were some interesting things on the ECWA website that invite further examination. I’ll get to that in a future post.
A follow-up post on New York State lobbying will be coming in the next few days.