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Monroe County election shows a divided community 

"You can only unify people who want to come together," our political writer Jeremy Moule suggested late last week.

We were talking about the routing that local Republicans gave Democrats in the November 3 election, and the disastrous division in the local Democratic Party. But Jeremy's comment is applicable to the condition of Monroe County as a whole, the Democrats' disarray aside.

Monroe County Republicans, heavily concentrated in the suburbs, gained strength in the election, picking up one seat in the County Legislature, which they now control 19-10. And they easily hung onto the county executive's office.

In the latter race, winner Cheryl Dinolfo was helped a bit by the dismally low turnout in the nearly exclusively Democratic city. And it didn't hurt that Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren declined to endorse Democrat Sandy Frankel. That's likely yet another sign of the serious - and distinctly racial - division among Monroe County Democrats. It's hard to blame Warren for not sharing her substantial funds, public support, and clout with a party when some of its big operatives continued to fight her after she won her party's mayoral primary.

But I'm not sure Frankel could have won, regardless. So maybe, for city residents, it was smart for Warren to stay neutral and not fight someone she'll need to work well with.

Because county government - its policies, its priorities, its funding, its legislation - is critically important to the city and its future. The county provides key social services for the poor, many of whom live in the city. The County Legislature appoints the Public Defender, whose office defends the poor. It nominates many of the board members of the transit company, whose buses are a lifeline for many city residents. It provides substantial funding for the public library.

It's no secret that the county is financially strapped. And no one, not Republicans and not the minority Democrats, is inclined to raise taxes. On the county's website, current County Executive Maggie Brooks notes that Monroe County hasn't raised the tax rate once in the 12 years she's been in office.

Since many costs have gone up, that has come at a price, in budget reductions in some areas and in work-arounds like fees and chargebacks. Among them: a charge on taxpayers' tax bills related to the number of Monroe Community College students in individual municipalities. In areas with numerous MCC students, taxpayers are charged more. And obviously, more MCC students come from areas with more low-income families, including the City of Rochester.

Budget cuts, fees, and charge-backs are likely to continue, given the county's long-running financial instability. It matters, then, how important the city is in the eyes of the new county executive and the heavily Republican legislature. Working with city officials, they could do great good. But there is little short-term incentive for them to do so, because this is structurally such a divided county, with every little municipality looking out for itself.

But much of the county's future is dependent on a healthy city. And much of the city's future health is dependent on our acting as one community - not only in providing taxpayer-funded services for the poor but in economic-development and other planning decisions that shore up the community's core rather than compete with it.

Few people can speak to the city's needs the way Lovely Warren can. If she and Cheryl Dinolfo build a true partnership, if Warren can convince not only Dinolfo but also the legislature Republicans, their party chair, and Republican town leaders of the need to act as one community, that will be an accomplishment that dwarfs some of the George Eastman-era reforms that we brag about.

Is that a naive hope? Maybe. But changing attitudes toward the city will take a lot of education - one-to-one personal lobbying of politicians in the suburbs. That will take a deep understanding of the city and its residents' needs, and it will take guts. Warren has both. If she can't pull it off, I'm not sure who can.

A version of this column appears in print with the headline "Our divided Monroe."

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