Last month, some 150 people attended a panel discussion about the high rate of poverty in Chautauqua County at the Clarion Hotel, Marina and Conference Center in Dunkirk. Make no mistake, poverty is an issue in this county that is not discussed enough publicly.
This session brought out three major leaders - state Sen. Catharine Young, Assemblyman Andrew Goodell and County Executive Greg Edwards - to voice concerns.
According to Chautauqua Opportunities Inc., which spearheaded the forum, 19 percent of the population of 134,000 residents - almost 25,000 people - live in poverty in this county, where the median household income has climbed to $41,000.
While many of the leaders on the panel talked a lot about what Albany does that forces poverty on the region, these leaders talked little about the local control over these issues.
During one of the points of discussion, Goodell spoke about how tough it is to change attitudes of politicians who are elected, thanks in part to the status quo. He specifically pointed to Vito Lopez, the disgraced assemblyman from New York who was forced to resign due to the sexual harassment scandal involving his staff members.
"Vito says to me, 'Andy your concepts make sense, but you don't understand. Thirty percent of my voters are on welfare. There's no way I'm going to try cutback on anything they're getting.' That's the perception," Goodell said. "That's the wrong perception.
"The perception ought to be 30 percent of my residents are in poverty, I have to do what I can to get them out of poverty, not maintain dependency. We need to be focused on independence, not dependency."
No argument there - or on some of the other topics, including a focus on the area's youth and career opportunities.
But these leaders forgot about one of the biggest drivers of the 19 percent poverty rate in our county: the overwhelming amount of taxing entities - one for every 2,161 residents.
With two cities, 15 villages, 27 towns and 18 school districts, each of these entities worry more about its own interests than doing what is best for the people they have been elected to serve. How else can you possibly explain the economic devastation and exodus that has been Western New York for more than 40 years?
This poverty conference was the perfect time to talk about the necessary elimination of tiny school districts and governments. That opportunity, unfortunately, was missed.
How could that happen when Silver Creek, the village hit hard by the Petri layoffs, is in shambles? Two hundred people are out of work - and a major business and former community partner is moving off the tax rolls - in a shrinking village of 2,700 that is being choked by poverty.
Is that government's fault for lack of foresight in the past? You bet.
At least leadership in the village is now keeping an open mind and working to change past wrongs. You could say the same about Forestville as well as the Ripley, Brocton and Westfield schools.
Blaming Albany and New York City, however, is a local crutch. Residents who want to end poverty here need to look at the real reason our region is so poor. It is due to a lack of investment by outsiders.
Those on the outside - who do not live here - do not care about services, local traditions or numerous governments. They, instead, look at the taxes and fees, all of which are driven by taxing entities that have no vision for the future except to keep their shrinking municipality or school in survival mode.
Poverty a problem? Absolutely. And Albany has a share of that responsibility.
The bigger burden, however, is right here. It's on those officials residents elect and endorse - in villages, cities, towns and schools - who raise taxes year after year and suffocate those who do business here then complain and wonder why the population declines.
Higher water rates than Arizona? They're here, even though we neighbor a Great Lake. High taxes? Some of the highest - currently ranked eighth - in the country.
High poverty? With all those taxes and fees, that's here in large numbers too. All thanks in large part to continued inefficient, costly governmental entities that worry only about what's in it for them.
Lifestyles Editor April Diodato, who has been an employee with the OBSERVER since 2005, is moving on.
Diodato began her time with us as an intern in 2003, then worked as a Lifestyles assistant, took on a short stint as a reporter before taking her current position in 2010. She has won writing awards in 2012 and 2011 and formerly wrote the In-town Rundown entertainment column for this newspaper.
We wish her the best.
John D'Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org