A Regional Look Forward to 2016
From reclaiming our neighborhoods to developing our workforce, success is well within Erie's grasp.
While many like to reflect upon the failures or successes of the past year, I'd like to take a moment to pronounce some opportunities in the year ahead.
Not being a fan of offering false hope, I've selected a few areas that have already received considerable traction, time, thought, and debate.
Equally, I'm a firm believer that challenges are not to be avoided, but are meant to be tested and conquered. All matters I address impact our taxpayers, faith communities, neighborhoods, businesses, schools, nonprofits, municipalities, and our county as a whole. Success won't be achieved easily, but it is well within our grasp.
After over 20 years of service, the Erie Area Council of Governments (COG) is entering a new phase in reducing the financial burdens of our county's 38 municipalities – and possibly its 13 school districts and multiple authorities – while improving their ability to serve the public they represent.
Member governments and their representatives, myself included, are determined to continue our teamwork and leverage our combined bargaining power on anything from asphalt to technology. This means ongoing and thorough collaborative self-analysis to meet the changing needs of our member governments, and to play an enhanced and functional role for all area governmental entities for the betterment of our region and those who call Erie County home.
Reclaiming Forgotten Neighborhoods
Over the past year and a half, City Councilman David Brennan and I, along with my graduate intern Paige Bosnyak and a long list of other community representatives, have been working on a strategy to reinvest in one of Erie County's hardest hit neighborhoods on Erie's east side.
What sparked as an idea to transform a blighted stretch of land along a former rail line – the very rail line Mayor Tullio fought for decades to remove – has grown into a low-cost endeavor to reconnect dead-end neighborhoods, provide safe travel to nearby schools and parks, clean up (literally) tons of garbage and waste, eliminate the open invitation for crime, and stabilize property values while providing a focal point for economic growth.
This project, the Eastside Opportunity Corridor, will soon be awarded a $5,000 community grant from Erie County's gaming funds. These funds will be used to leverage more funding from other grant sources, and to revitalize a neighborhood that is decades behind in basic livability standards.
With the looming expiration of the EMTA 50-year charter, county government has vocally expressed a desire to change the organization and those it serves. These changes can only be addressed within the charter framework because they are fundamental to its operations and funding. We cannot rubber stamp what is essentially a business contract and expect to negotiate details after the fact.
Those of us who call the City of Erie home can no longer afford to be double-taxed for regional services, and the region must step up to the plate and relieve the city of its unnecessary financial burden. This needed change will dramatically expand Erie's ability to effectively deal with issues of violence and livability. If Erie does not have the resources and gumption to address these concerns now, families and businesses will continue to flee from its high tax rate and deteriorating neighborhoods, and the region will suffer as our largest municipality continues to decline.
The path forward must include equitable and permanent representation by the region which collectively pays the bills, and the ridership (current and future) who know the system best. No matter where you live in Erie County, and no matter your age or income bracket, you deserve dependable and accessible transportation to all of our communities, including Erie.
I urge care and meaningful work by all sides on this matter. We cannot afford to let this process devolve into petty politicking or passive leadership.
Our future economy, and our future tax base, rest in the hands of Erie County's largest segment of the population: Millennials.
Our economic problems have little to do with "brain drain," and everything to do with the thousands of young people who lack both the skills to replace a retiring workforce, and the ability to meet the needs of an expanding or relocating industry.
This is not a crisis that our educational institutions can solve alone, nor is it a matter to be left solely to one group or level of government. Municipalities must particularly be in the driver's seat on this one because their future – and the future of our entire region – depends upon the capabilities of our workforce to meet the needs of high-skill industries.
More simply: A skilled workforce is a better incentive to do business in Erie than any amount of tax credits.
Whether you refuse to give up on your neighborhood, or you fled to a different community hoping to protect your children, yourself, or your property, every one of you pays for the rising cost of violence in our region.
Policing alone is not the solution. There is nothing simple about the root causes of violence, which means our responses should be equally multi-faceted, adaptive, and proactive.
It will take time. But, more importantly, it will take leaders from all sectors working together and not letting up. The worst we could do is initiate efforts to combat violence, and set those efforts on cruise control.
Output vs. Outcome
It's not enough to do a lot. We could busy ourselves with a thousand initiatives and end up with nothing to show in the end.
Every volunteer, voter, engaged citizen, community leader, business professional, and elected official has to ensure that we establish clear expectations for transformative change as an end result of all that we do.
Having meetings, spending money, cutting ribbons, and making announcements are both ineffective and wasteful when they are done merely for the sake of doing something.
Our key to a successful 2016 rests in the hands of those who have an outcome in mind, and will work – and I mean really work – with others to get the job done.
Jay Breneman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.