Former two-term Erie County Executive Joel Giambra is running for Governor of New York with a plan to consolidate county and municipal governments. Giambra has long evangelized regionalism — an issue that has defined his political career. It’s a vision born at the crux of municipal economics and industrial collapse, the two forces that have shaped the broad arc of our region’s brutal 65 year decline.
Giambra has spent a career in public service — much of it as a Democrat — working to improve the Lower West Side neighborhood of Buffalo where he came of age in the Lakeview public housing complex. As Niagara District Councilman in his early 20s, he championed the restoration of the Connecticut Street Armory, a remarkable preservation achievement at a time when the movement was still in its infancy.
When he was elected Comptroller of the City of Buffalo he initiated a conversation about the consolidation of county and municipal service delivery that would win him two terms as County Executive. He created a conversation about the fiscal economics of an economy that “grows older, poorer, and sicker.” It was a hard truth that forced the body politic to reflect inward on its culture of municipal fiefdoms where everyone vies to become a grand pubah in his own mind.
He isn’t as credited as he should be for starting that conversation about regionalism, but such is politics. Western New York is certainly better off for that discourse on governance, which would later enable Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Councils and the era of regional cooperation that followed.
A Bold Vision for New York
In Giambra’s view property taxes are too high, the cost of service delivery is too onerous, and the business climate is too regulated for local leaders to fix structural problems that are imposed by policy makers at the state and federal level. He railed against Albany’s vast slate of unfunded mandates that prevent local governments from innovating, automating, and streamlining local service delivery.
While he was County Executive he pushed for a consolidation process that would merge the county’s 42 separate general purpose governments. He knows that his most fervent supporters — suburban Republicans — understand the value of merging the administration of dozens of water boards and sewer authorities, town and village courts, and municipal highway departments.
Countywide municipal consolidation scaled statewide and coupled with a wide ranging repeal of unfunded mandates on local governments, will liberate local communities from an oppressive property tax levy. A meaningful repeal of unfunded mandates, by itself, would catalyze a period of innovation and reinvention of service delivery in local government. The savings would be used to lighten the property tax burden on homeowners.
How does a Republican win statewide in New York?
In a political environment where voters of both parties have tired of the extremes, observers expect that a sound policy platform and a visionary message would go a long way in distinguishing one’s candidacy — especially in this State, where the Governor would prefer to spin false platitudes rather than do the hard work of fixing structural economic problems.
The Cuomo administration is expected to call for a second statewide sales tax later this year, but many expect the Governor to delay the announcement until after the election. At a time when property taxes are already the highest in the nation, high income earners will face a de facto 20% income tax increase in light of federal tax reforms. Voters in Westchester, Rockland, Duchess, Nassau, and Suffolk counties are expected to be in proverbial revolt.
It is expected that Giambra will enjoy the same regional identity politics advantage that Carl Paladino enjoyed in 2010, when the candidate’s pervasive name recognition won him wide electoral margins in the nine counties of Western New York.
With a third party candidacy from the left, Cuomo’s vote totals could be split just right in the five boroughs of New York City, where the left is discontent with his tenure in office. Such a split, perhaps with a Zephyr Teachout candidacy on the Green Party line, could be the margin of victory.