Back in the day: Part One

After my blog post about the results of the recent elections I got a comment from an old friend, Paul Fisk, who had left the Buffalo area some time ago to the effect that it made him feel old to not know any of the candidates but to have known many of their parents. This led to some mutual reminiscing about people we knew in local government and politics “back in the day,” which for us was the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s. As we had both held various appointive positions, we brought up a number of higher profile non-elected people we knew who had made a difference back then. Long story short, we decided to go visit one who we knew was still around: John B. “JB” Walsh, the attorney who lobbied Albany to get the City of Buffalo help during a period of extreme fiscal stress. Here are Paul’s comments about our visit with JB.

Talking with JB brought us back to a time that seems, in retrospect (and perhaps through rose colored glasses), kinder, gentler, and oddly more hopeful than today. While Buffalo was in dire straits financially, there was not the extreme polarization and dysfunction that exists nationally now. When times got tough, there was bipartisan cooperation to try to make them better.

Buffalo was suffering from the national trends of suburbanization and the loss of rust belt industries, as well as the impact of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the loss of Buffalo’s advantage as the eastern terminus for Great Lakes shipping of iron ore and grain.   The decline of Bethlehem and Republic Steel corporations, the grain milling and auto industries in the Buffalo area, and the concomitant loss of city population and tax base put great strain on city financial resources. The New York State constitution’s restriction on Buffalo’s and other major cities’ abilities to raise revenue from the property tax resulted in a noose tightening on city finances. The state’s Taylor Law granting collective bargaining rights to public sector workers, and compulsory binding arbitration to police and fire unions, increased the pressures. In New York City, these sorts of trends and questionable use of borrowing to meet needs ultimately led to the financial crisis of the mid-1970’s and the creation of the New York City Financial Control Board.

JB helped organize the mayors of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Yonkers and New York City into a “Big 6” coalition to present common needs to Albany, which achieved some success in increasing state support for the troubled cities. To illustrate the common cause and cooperation that existed, he told the story of learning that New York City was to receive a substantial amount of aid in one bill, while Buffalo was to receive less than it needed, and how Republican NYC Mayor John Lindsay agreed to take just a bit less in order to meet Buffalo’s needs.   JB worked with Democratic Mayor Frank Sedita , Governor Hugh Carey and the Assembly Democratic majority, but also with Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and State Senate Majority Leader Earl Bridges to funnel needed aid to Buffalo.

A good friend of then Buffalo Budget Director Jim Burns, JB pushed a number of financial plans to provide Buffalo with special assistance. One of the more creative ones was to “sell” to New York State the “reversionary rights” to the Buffalo airport for $5 million (meaning that, should the NFTA ever cease to operate the airport, the rights to do so would revert to the State rather than the City of Buffalo).   At various times he was instrumental in negotiating additional aid for the city and school board, and for the NFTA, Sewer Authority, OTB and other entities.

Jim Burns had strong views on local control and self-governance. He believed it would be an abdication of responsibility to surrender decision making authority to an unelected control board. He worked hard to avoid the need for one, and to demonstrate to Albany that Buffalo was doing what it could to try to solve its own problems. One strategy employed was to commission a major consulting firm to do management studies of major city operations, to recommend changes to improve efficiency and effectiveness.   Publication of these findings was intended to elicit media and political support for reforms that were potentially controversial and politically difficult to achieve. The strategy did indeed result in controversy, particularly over recommended changes in police and fire operations, and was only modestly successful.

Throughout Buffalo’s financial struggles in those days the Western New York delegation to the state legislature generally acted with admirable cooperation and collegiality to support the city’s legislative agenda, regardless of party affiliation. It was also a time when members of both parties socialized together, and could even trade barbs in a congenial fashion. (One of JB’s roles back then was to write many of the songs used in the annual Capitol Hill Show, a bipartisan political production similar to the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington. And, at 88, JB impressed us with his ability to sing all the lyrics to satirical numbers he’d written four and five decades ago.)

This trip down memory lane with JB was a refreshing reminder that representative democracy can indeed work to solve problems, get things done, and remain reasonably civil. We would do well to keep those memories alive in today’s world.

This post was written by Paul Fisk who, back in the day, held a variety of appointive positions in county and city government, including as Buffalo’s Budget Director under Finance Commissioner Jim Burns late in the Makowski administration.