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Reps walk tightrope on local logjams

Editor's corner

OBSERVER photo State and local representatives, including Gowanda Mayor David Smith, were out in full force on Dec. 22 to show support for the Gowanda Correctional Facility.

GOWANDA — Big names gathered outside the Gowanda Correctional Facility just days before Christmas. Only 24 hours earlier, state Gov. Andrew Cuomo let the bomb drop that has the potential to change the pulse in this community for years to come: the prison was slated for closure.

Republicans, including state Sen. George Borrello, Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt and Assemblyman Joe Giglio were leading the charge surrounded by corrections officers, union officials and community members. Who needed chestnuts by an open fire when the roasting of Cuomo’s miserly decision to vacate the facility was starting to ignite.

“After months of putting their health and safety at risk to do their jobs in the midst of a pandemic, the hard working men and women who staff Gowanda Correctional Facility have received their holiday ‘thanks’ from the state: notification that their place of employment is closing in a matter of weeks,” said Borrello, whose 57th Senate District encompasses the Cattaraugus County portion of the village likely to be impacted the greatest.

Numerous other comments echoing Borrello’s sentiments came across loud and clear. Local residents and those who represent them see the shuttering of the facility as a major step backward for the community.

As of today — 68 days until the planned March 31 closure — any hope of keeping the location open seems bleak at best. New York state is bleeding cash — even if there is a federal infusion — due to COVID-19. In his budget proposal this week, Cuomo was fairly blunt about the serious fiscal crisis. Frankly speaking, sacrifices must be made.

For the elected officials who attended the Dec. 22 rally in support of the publicly funded Gowanda site, it was a no-brainer. Area residents understand and appreciate that type of representation in an attempt to preserve jobs and an important economic engine.

But it can get tricky when catering to a clientele who can be the difference between agony and victory on Election Day. Often, to keep that popularity, politicians take on causes that they know can have some risks.

When the first closure attempt was made in October 2013 at the TLC Hospital campus in Irving by UPMC, which was overseeing operations, elected leaders pulled off a similar rally to prevent the health-care facility’s closure. With support of federal, state and county politicians, some might say they only delayed what became inevitable.

Though the campus remained open and provided excellent care for more than five years until last February due to that local push, it came at a high cost. New York state subsidized the financially failing facility to the tune of more than $25 million over a decade.

As with most publicly funded causes, money does not drive decisions. Emotions do.

How else can you explain the lack of disgust for private-sector decisions in both the north and south county? Almost during that same time as the TLC dilemma is when both Fredonia and Dunkirk learned about ConAgra closing its two highly productive plants that employed 400 workers. It was a devastating blow to both communities, but politicians did little publicly to keep — or rally enough support — for the locations.

Truck-Lite in Falconer was a similar situation. Despite years of support through the county Industrial Development Agency, once a company decision was made many miles away to close operations, there was a sense of helplessness despite last-ditch meetings at the 11th hour with local, county and state officials. Once COVID-19 hit nationwide, the business became almost an afterthought.

Then, of course, there’s other times when our heavy hitters look to avoid becoming embroiled in major issues that beg for some added guidance. During a conference call with regional media in early December, U.S. Rep. Tom Reed talked about his willingness to seek grants and funding for a troubled Fredonia water system that was desperately in need of repairs decades ago.

He did acknowledge the seriousness of the crisis, which left users without drinking water for 20 days in September, but turned tepid when acknowledging the village seeking a regional solution in the North County Water District.

“I’m leaving that to the local officials to make that determination,” he said. “I want to be in a position to help once they make what they feel is the best determination. … But I’m deferring to the local officials because they know their communities best.”

Within the last month, Reed has been on the hot seat regarding recent debate over impeachment and certifying the election. In significant decisions affecting a nation, he stood his ground.

When it came to a controversial issue that impacts a much smaller number — 12,000 water users in the north county — he dithered. That, apparently, keeps a constituency satisfied while not putting any added pressure on local leaders who, no matter how helpless and reckless the situation, will almost always lean the way of the status quo.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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