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Facing the crisis 

Picture Monroe County with its public parks abandoned, trails and shelters in disrepair, Highland's lilacs and conservatory a shambles, Ontario Beach permanently closed.

                  Some arts organizations and museums shuttered and others dramatically reducing their offerings. The zoo shut down, the airport in disrepair, roads full of potholes. Residents and businesses fleeing a city that has lost the ability to police its streets and staff its schools.

                  City and suburban fire services slashed. Suburban schools increasing class sizes, eliminating music, art, and foreign language programs, cutting out sports.

                  That's a community where no one --- no corporate CEO, no young adult, no parent, no retiree --- wants to live or work. It's a community where robust economic development is a pipe dream.

                  It's not the reality now, and it won't be the reality tomorrow. But we are headed down that road. You're already seeing the signs, in city and county government. And you're beginning to see the signs in the suburbs, as they try to finance a growing demand for services and avoid major tax hikes.

                  The looming financial crisis is the most important issue facing the county and its residents. And for voters, it should be the most important issue in the county-executive campaign.

The county is spending more money than it is taking in. No matter what you believe is the cause, no matter who you believe is at fault, the truth is that the county is in big trouble. And that trouble is not temporary. It's been building for several years, and there'll be no quick rescue.

                  The next county executive will inherit a financial disaster. Much of the county's spending is mandated by law and cannot be cut. The county has spent down its reserves. It has spent the money from the tobacco settlement. It is selling off assets. And it is borrowing money to pay for operating expenses.

                  There is great pain ahead, of a kind that the average person in Monroe County has not experienced. And without creative thinking, without unprecedented cooperation among local political leaders --- village, town, city, and county --- the pain will intensify.

                  A blue-ribbon task force, appointed by the Doyle administration and County Legislature Republicans, warned us of the crisis nearly a year ago. The task force, known as the Richards Committee, laid out some solid suggestions for addressing that crisis. The Doyle administration has ignored those suggestions.

                  Last year, the administration announced major cuts in funding of social services, arts, parks, and public safety. A bipartisan coalition pushed through a modest tax increase, and reduced some of those cuts. But that simply helped solve the problem for a year.

                  And so there are tough times, and tough choices, ahead. It's hard to see how we'll escape major cuts in services. And frankly, it's hard to see how we'll avoid substantial tax increases. Even with dramatic cuts in non-mandated services, the county may not be able to balance the budget.

                  And some of those cuts will come back to haunt us. If the county doesn't provide enough funding for child care, the working poor will have little choice but to stop working and go on welfare. If the county can't pay for routine county road maintenance, we'll pay for expensive repairs later.

Money isn't the only challenge, of course. The next county executive will have to deal with economic development, environmental issues, social-service delivery, and numerous other concerns. For the next five weeks, City Newspaper will be analyzing some of the issues in the county-executive race. We begin this week with an interview with Rochester business leader Tom Richards, who headed the county's blue-ribbon task force last year and has participated this year in drafting two other reports on the county's fiscal situation. Our goal is to help provide context for the discussions in this most important race.

                  During October, Monroe County voters will be bombarded by campaign ads: on television and radio, in print media, in our mailboxes. Those ads will be sound bites, designed to persuade emotionally rather than to inform. Voters concerned about the future of their community must dig deeper. This election will shape our future. And we cannot vote intelligently if we are not well educated, about our problems and our options.

                  What kind of community do we want? What mistakes have we made in the past, and what have we learned from them? What do we expect the county to do, given the enormous constraints under which it operates?

                  What are we willing to sacrifice, together, to dig ourselves out of this hole and start building a stronger future?

                  Working together is particularly difficult in Monroe County since increasingly, we think of ourselves as residents of the city or an individual village or town. There's little incentive to think of ourselves as members of a larger community. And there's little leadership encouraging us to do so. But on November 4, Monroe County voters have a responsibility to act as citizens of the Community of Monroe.

                  First, though, we have a responsibility to become informed.

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