We’re stronger as one, not divided

Once again, we hear about the loss of residents from Chautauqua County. We continue to see calls for mergers among high school athletic programs, but no mention of dissolving a school district that is hanging on with the blood and sweat of the taxpayers.

We listen to local politicians talk about bringing business and economic development to our areas, but balk at the very idea of sharing services or participating in anything that even hints at being “regional.”

People complain about their taxes and a possible loss of municipal services, but don’t want their neighborhood, rolling countryside or the grape vineyards touched.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has all but mandated villages, towns and cities to share services and to consider consolidation whenever and wherever possible. The same goes for our way too many school districts.

It seems that on a fairly regular basis there will be articles written by politicians, newspaper columnists, and commentators about the topic of regionalism, and school district consolidation, and yet nothing seems to change. When discussing this topic I am continually amazed at the number of people who feel it necessary to tell me that I just don’t understand “how things have always been” and “where is my school pride” or worse, yet, “if we regionalize or consolidate we will lose control and our identity.” Each of these comments is filled with the same small mindedness that has our county in the state of decline we see today.

Sunday’s OBSERVER pointed out the recent U.S. Census Bureau report showing our population decline of over 5,000 people in just the last six years. Those numbers are astounding but not surprising. Chautauqua County is one of the highest taxed regions in the entire state of New York. And yet, talk of consolidation, mergers, sharing of services is too often one sided.

According to a report from the University of the State of New York Education Department, they have projected that Chautauqua County will see a decrease in the number of graduating students by 21.3 percent over the period of 2008 to 2019. We also have an average cost per pupil of approximately $19,500 in our Western New York region. The most recent figures on cost per student in our county alone, range from approximately $14,000 in Falconer to over $26,000 in the village of Brocton – this is outrageous! And yet those very taxpayers who complain about the high costs of taxes, don’t want to consolidate or share meaningful services. I say “meaningful” because, while I support sports, sports and athletic programs are not the end-all when it comes to education.

If our population is declining, the number of our graduating seniors is diminishing, our young people are leaving the area because of a lack of job opportunities, and taxes are going up, where does that leave the rest of us? Had “Trumpcare” passed in the House last week, we would have been in even worse shape because there would be no one left to pay the bills. It is time to wake up.

We are fortunate to have new businesses and the potential for economic development in our area, but it will take more.

Not being from this area originally, I have only heard about the “good ‘ole days” of Dunkirk. Days when Central Avenue was a bustling and busy place with shops, restaurants, and stores lining the sidewalks. Those days, so they say, were times when jobs were plentiful, industry was booming, and the neighborhoods were clean, well-kept and safe for the children. We can be that way again! But it will take work.

Community is not one person, or even one geographical entity. Our community here in Chautauqua County, and specifically in the North County is one! To make it all that it can be for each of us will take commitment and a willingness to work with our neighboring city, village or town. I firmly believe that positive growth and an economic renaissance can happen to our area, but only if every leader in every village, town, hamlet and city work toward the same goal – and that includes the school districts!

This is a time when budget preparations are beginning for the upcoming fiscal year – revenue from NRG may be uncertain, water reservoirs and dams may be in need of repair, and streets and roads have their share of potholes – but working together is the only way. We teach our children to share before we send them off to kindergarten, how sad that as adults the meaning of that word becomes lost.

Sharing services is a good thing – for everyone. Consolidation is not a dirty word for our school districts to consider. Regionalism does not mean losing identity or control, and bringing growth opportunities through diversified economic development will benefit the entire area.

As was printed in the OBSERVER recently, “That’s where the future success will really take place — and draw people back.” I can only hope that those who can make a difference will.

Spring has finally arrived – it is a time for new beginnings, a time for moving forward, a time of opportunity – let’s take advantage of all that this season has to offer, let’s share.

Have a great day.

Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com