GIAMBRA

Erie County Executive Joel Giambra speaks during a news conference about his request to review and evaluate the county's "Clean Air Act" , in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

DAVID DUPREY

Before Consensus CNY, the campaign to merge the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County governments, there was another endeavor to consolidate a large upstate city and county into one regional government. 

The man who led that push was Joel Giambra, who served two terms as Erie County executive from 2000 through 2007 and is now seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo

As county executive, Giambra advocated for merging the city of Buffalo and Erie County, upstate's two largest municipalities. He also attempted to combine the Buffalo Police Department and the Erie County Sheriff's Department. Both efforts were unsuccessful. 

Despite the failures, Giambra hasn't given up on his support of regional government. 

"I think it's the only way that you can really effectively reduce the cost and size of local government," he said in a phone interview with The Citizen last week. 

The Consensus CNY plan is a major component of the region's CNY Rising economic development strategy, a product of the state's Upstate Revitalization Initiative that awarded central New York $500 million to support various projects and boost job creation. 

Consensus CNY outlined a slew of recommendations in 2016, including the proposed Syracuse-Onondaga County merger. Some city and county leaders, including Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, supported the concept or were willing to learn more about the possible consolidation of the two governments. Others, such as then-Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, criticized the plan. 

The final Consensus CNY report was released last year and once again recommended the city-county merger. 

"I've told people I sincerely believe that we could form a metropolitan government that no one would notice in their everyday lives after we did it," Mahoney said in an interview last year. 

Consensus has the support of the state. Through the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, the state pledged $25 million to help advance the merger and other recommendations outlined in the plan. 

But Giambra believes the state should do more to implement regional governments across New York. Cuomo, a Democrat, has advocated for government consolidation over the years. He has repeatedly said there are too many local governments in New York and links the number of municipalities, fire districts, water districts and other entities to the high property tax burden. 

One of Cuomo's proposals last year was for counties to form panels to discuss ways to share services among local governments. In his 2018 State of the State agenda, he proposed making those panels permanent and requiring local government officials to meet annually to develop ways to share services. 

Giambra, though, doesn't think that's enough. 

"It's nice that we can share a bulldozer, but it doesn't really save a whole lot of money," he said. "We have to get more nimble. We have to have a broader approach to government service delivery. You can't have 15 highway superintendents. That system of governance doesn't work.

He added, "I will be taking that message from Jamestown to Montauk because the problem exists throughout the entire state and our system of governance." 

Giambra also believes regional government can help address issues the state faces because of changes made to the state and local tax deduction in the recently adopted federal tax plan. 

The tax plan approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump alters the state and local tax deduction. Now, there is a $10,000 cap on the amount of state and local income, property and sales taxes you may deduct. 

Cuomo, who was a critic of the Republican tax plan, has said the changes to the state and local tax deduction will harm New Yorkers. But Giambra views it as an opportunity for the state to explore ideas, including regional government, to lower property taxes. 

"Let's get serious about reducing the cost of service delivery at the local government level, which will stimulate economic development and maybe avoid us from having to give away taxpayer dollars in failed experiments," he said. 

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