Business Man: Dennis Gorski is the County Leader of the Year
Dennis Gorski has spent his political career raising eyebrows. A lifelong Democrat, he has become, as county executive of Erie County, N.Y., closely identified with issues like welfare reform and tax freezes, issues often considered “Republican.” He is the darling of the Erie County business community, and he is viewed with some suspicion in heavily Democratic Buffalo, the county seat. In his first race, the party refused to endorse him.
Gorski, however, is not easily swayed or intimidated. (He was, after all, a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam and is the father of five children – experiences that give him a fearlessness not often found in government officials.)
In 1987, Erie County needed fixing, and the repairs, Gorski knew, would not wear a party label. Twelve years later, he has produced a record that would look good on any political resume, mostly by using the common sense that tends to escape partisan politics.
Since his 1987 election, when he overwhelmed the Republican incumbent to take the county executive’s job, Gorski has eliminated the county’s $75 million deficit; produced 10 consecutive balanced budgets; cut the county’s welfare burden by 20 percent through job programs and fraud detection; reduced the county’s workforce by 1,500 employees; and consolidated a number of county departments. None of it was easy.
“There was a lot of pain involved,” Gorski says. “I was beat up in many circles.” He was also sued by several community groups and trashed by local unions. Many Buffalo officials were skeptical, if not downright hostile.
Gorski apologizes for nothing. “What all that enabled us to do was institute a three-year property tax freeze,” he says. “No other local government in New York has done that. It’s also put us in the position of having modest surpluses to invest in the economic future of this community.”
When Gorski says “this community,” he means more than just Erie County. He means the whole package: Erie County and its three cities, 25 towns and 16 villages. “County government is the regional government here,” he says. “But New York has a long tradition of home rule. We have to step gingerly.”
Gorski is convinced that a regional approach is the only answer to the development problems plaguing western New York. Under his leadership, the county has pushed development of the area’s waterfront and construction of a new hockey arena. Negotiations for a new convention center currently are under way.
As much as possible, Gorski attempts to involve other local government entities in projects and programs that ultimately benefit their citizens. To that end, he is seeking the participation of the county’s myriad jurisdictions in a vast economic development project announced in June.
Spearheaded by the county, the plan will include: * rehabilitation of brownfields, whether by demolition or infrastructure improvements, to attract new and expanding businesses; * creation of a program to market the region; * establishment of a Business Relocation Fund; and * preparation of a “smart growth” master plan.
To help jump-start the process, Gorski’s 1998 budget includes a request for $3 million to be used to promote regionalism. He intends to establish a “Center for Cooperative Economic Growth,” which will bear primary responsibility for ensuring cooperation among regional organizations and developing a consensus on regional economic priorities.
“This package,” Gorski says, “will not only stand on the shoulders of what we’ve already done; it will also revive all of western New York.”
Reviving the area is not something Gorski merely wants to do. It is his crusade, his passion, his raison d’etre. “I want my kids and my grandkids to want to live here,” he says. “This will make that happen. We’re not talking theoretical; we are going to do it.”
Blueprint for business Gorski is absolutely convinced that attracting new industry and expanding existing businesses is the key to the economic revival of Erie County, which had fallen on hard times with the demise of the local steel industry. The county’s willingness to offer a hand, he believes, is the key to that.
“Dennis is very accessible to the business community and extremely responsive,” says Alan Cherbow, vice president of Ingram Micro, a local computer wholesaler that has doubled the size of its Erie County workforce twice in the last decade. “And he’s pretty damn creative when it comes to business solutions.
“We came to him with building expansion plans in hopes that we could get some kind of economic package. He had a commitment to us in less than 10 days. We went through with our expansion partly because of how easy it was to work with him.”
“Dennis has made the county more user-friendly for businesses,” says Carl Paladino, an attorney and developer, who calls Gorski a “shining star in the local government arena; someone who is always willing to help out if he thinks it will mean jobs.”
Gorski’s interest in the business community is not just a matter of lip service. He has been to Japan and Korea in attempts to drum up local business and will not hesitate to hop a plane if he thinks the trip will result in a local contract. “I’ll go anywhere I see a job,” he says.
Because of that, Erie Countians have seen their unemployment levels drop dramatically as more than 10,000 new jobs have been added to the area economy since the beginning of the decade. Job training programs are providing basic job skills to the unemployed and to those making the transition from welfare to the job market.
Additionally, last year, Gorski announced a three-year freeze on property taxes, primarily to show the business world the stability of Erie County’s tax situation. The tax freeze, he noted in a Buffalo News article, would give businesses a “new blueprint” and allow companies the certainty of knowing what theirtaxes would be for the next three years.
Finding all the angles Making the county a haven for business has been one aspect of what Gorski calls his “vision of the future.” Getting people into gainful employment is another. His welfare-to-work policies have been lauded as sound and workable solutions to the cycle of poverty. In fact, intensive job training and placement helped move nearly 4,000 welfare recipients into the workforce in 1997, Gorski says, saving the county $23 million in welfare benefits.
Additionally, a fingerprinting program has ferreted out double dippers , resulting in the dropping of some 1,000 childless adults from the county’s welfare rolls since its 1995 inception. That program led to criticism that Gorski was “criminalizing welfare recipients,” but it has also reduced the amount of county money spent on welfare to its lowest levels since 1981.
Basically, those who know him say, if there is an angle that will allow Erie County to save money, Gorski will find it. If that means browbeating the state legislature in Albany about mandates, which Gorski estimates consume 72 percent of Erie County’s budget, so be it. “We don’t want to be an agency for the state of New York,” he says. “We want flexibility.”
If it means suing the tobacco industry for reimbursement of health care costs (Erie was one of the nation’s first counties to see the potential there), that is okay, too. If it means lobbying Congress in support of legislation, well, Gorski is not exactly shy.
That, and his credibility, is why the National Association of Counties called on him to help argue its case for the Feinstein Amendment to the Cain tobacco bill that the Senate killed in June. That amendment directed states that get local government contributions to their health care systems to share the revenue generated by the legislation with those local governments. “New York state is one of the few states that requires local governments to contribute to Medicaid,” Gorski says. “We think we have a proprietary right.”
(The bill’s death means that New York and the 36 other states that have filed lawsuits against the tobacco industry will have to pursue those actions individually.)
Political Roots Gorski’s political roots run deep. His father, Chester, was, at various times, a state legislator and president of the Buffalo Common Council. A Democrat, the senior was beaten in the first-ever county executive election, held in 1960. Twenty-seven years later, his son became the first Democrat to hold that office. Erie County is somewhat of an anomaly; by and large, voters consider themselves Democrats, but they usually elect Republicans. Ironically, Gorski now works in the Edward Rath County Building, which is named for his father’s victorious opponent. “I think about it sometimes,” he says. “If my father had won the election, I’d be working in the Gorski Building.”
Local government is in Gorski’s blood. “I’ve been in the state legislature,” he says, “but, ultimately, I’ve found that county government is the government that resonates best with people. People can see me at the convenience store and choke me if they don’t like me. I like that kind of personal involvement.”
That involvement is much of what makes Gorski successful, says Lancaster Town Supervisor Bob Giza. “He knows what’s going on,” Giza points out. “He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves. He’s not a standoffish, ceremonial type person. You can’t put much over on him.”
Gorski’s hands-on approach to government also has ensured that those working for Erie County know what they are doing. “If he hires you, and you don’t do your job, you get fired,” Giza says. “He has quality people working for him because he knows how to get them.”
That philosophy has been the driving force behind Erie County’s renaissance. Now, the county is poised for the future. Dennis Gorski has made it his business to see to that.