Stealth Regionalism Sneaks Up on the '90s

June 13, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

ALBANY, NEW YORK — Albany, New York. -- Across America, regionalism is being reinvented. The goal isn't, though, to merge center cities and suburbs into a single government -- the formula pushed in the '60s.

This time, the goal is to figure out which is the best level to deliver varying services economically and efficiently. Pressures of strained government budgets and tax revolts are driving the ++ debate.

And so is regional competitiveness, as leaders from Charlotte to Memphis, Miami to Seattle, worry whether fragmented government services are any way for their ''citistate'' regions to cope with challenges of foreign trade, clean air, solid waste, work-force preparedness and keeping infrastructure up to date.

One would expect the fast-running hares in this movement to be those sleek, affluent, upwardly mobile towns of the South and West -- the Austins, Boulders and San Diegos of America.

But now a tortoise-like region of the politically encrusted Northeast, encumbered with governments as old as 200 years, is moving up in the pack. It's the eight-county Capital Region surrounding Albany, Schenectady and Troy, an area recently so hidebound that Albany political boss ''Uncle'' Daniel P. O'Connell was able to hold sway for a half-century until his death, in his 90s, in 1977.

The Capital Region's eight counties harbor no fewer than 990 municipalities, districts and authorities -- a Byzantine network

described by

one local critic as ''a governmental, bureaucratic and regulatory morass confronting corporations and citizens alike.''

On their own, local politicos weren't about to change much. But starting in 1990, three persons leading institutions with big long-term stakes in the region stepped into the game.

From business, Victor Riley, head of Key Bank of New York and a member of a blue-ribbon commission on government consolidation appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo, brought serious dollars into reform efforts. Press credibility was supplied by Timothy White, publisher of the Albany Times Union. And organizational glue and strategic thinking came from the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York, led by Richard Nathan, a nationally known public-administration expert.

Other key allies were lined up, including New York Secretary of State Gail Shaffer and Albany's development-minded, business-led Center for Economic Growth.

The Rockefeller Institute sponsored a series of conferences including stakeholders and civic leaders from across the region. Task forces tackled subjects ranging from regional transportation to public safety to sports and tourism issues. Leaders came from Indianapolis, Toronto, Charlotte and Portland, Oregon, to tell their citistate stories of advanc ing regional cohesion.

Late in 1992, the Albany and Rensselaer county executives signed onto an ''action agreement'' supporting regionalization. Retiring Albany Mayor Thomas Whelan III moved to the Rockefeller Institute to lead its regionalization effort. State legislators from the region formed a caucus to further the regionalization agenda.

And last January, in the State of the State address, Governor Cuomo endorsed legislation, prepared by the Rockefeller Institute, to create an 18-month Capital Region Study Commission.

Among the sponsors' hopes is creation of an elected regional authority akin to the Portland-area METRO, given responsibility for running specified region-wide services. For the Albany region, these might include consolidated solid-waste treatment and a managed-care service to bargain with HMOs for the region's Medicaid population.

The path ahead is strewn with political boulders -- getting the legislature (even with Governor Cuomo's backing) to act, organizing a successful commission, resolving revenue questions and winning a multi-county referendum on major shifts.

The Albany effort, however, is already providing clear ''how's'' for regional reformers everywhere.

First, get a cross section of the region's most influential people on board at the very start.

Second, involve hundreds of citizens, activists, non-profit group leaders in task forces and planning. They enrich the process, provide credibility and ''buy-in.''

Third, get some early ''wins'' to convince people there are real payoffs in regionalism. A unified authority to run Albany's behind-the-times airport has already emerged from the effort.

Other pluses include planning for coordinated regional calendars sports and the arts, and computer access to government service and health information. Sponsors are talking of contracting out multi-county welfare services to a firm that promises to charge no fee unless it gets a welfare recipient into a paying private-sector job for three months or more.

The Albany reformers are focusing on services, efficiency and regional competitiveness. They never talk of abolishing cities or counties, or ''metropolitan government.'' To get the regionalism ball rolling, they're trying to avoid sticky tax-equity and social-fairness issues as long as they can.

Albany regionalism moves ahead because the Rockefeller Institute is able to use its faculty talents, to rely on its independence from political pressure and to calculate further strategy steps. Pitifully few academic institutions do so much for their regions. If they did, we might have more successful citistates -- and a stronger country.

M?

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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