Buffalo: Real State of the City

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Buffalo is doing better, but is it doing as well as the politicians and much of the local press would have us believe?

The answer, in a word, is “no.”

That was the bottom line to my address Feb. 24 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Progress has been overstated. There’s a lot of racial inequality. We’re a high-crime city where few criminals get caught. And Buffalo is a ward of the state.

Charlotte Keith and I dug deep into the data to provide a factual, statistical framework on which I based my conclusions.

Here they are, in a nutshell:

Racial disparities are rampant.

  • The average household income in Erie and Niagara counties is more than twice as high among whites ($55,000) as it is African Americans ($25,000) and Hispanics ($27,000).
  • The regional unemployment rate for blacks and Hispanics is double that of whites.
  • The city’s poverty rate has increased to 31 percent and ranks third highest in the nation among large cities. The regional poverty rate for African Americans and and Hispanics is four times greater than for whites (37 vs. 9 percent).
  • Only 7.5 percent of black and Hispanic elementary pupils in city schools tested proficient for language and math skills, vs. 27 percent for white. The gap for math is even bigger (9 vs. 32 percent).

The city’s economy isn’t everything it’s been cranked up to be.

  • There are 10,000 fewer city residents employed today than 10 years ago.
  • The downtown office vacancy rate has climbed to 24 percent.
  • On a positive note, the value of new construction has jumped in recent years and as many apartment units were built or converted last year as in the seven previous years combined.

Buffalo has a lot of crime and little of it gets solved.

  • Buffalo’s violent crime rate is 8th highest among 77 cities with a population between 200,000 and 500,000. The clearance rate is 19th worst.
  • The city’s murder rate was 8th worst; its clearance rate was second-worst.
  • Eight of every 10 crimes in the city goes unsolved.

Students in city schools continue to struggle academically.

  • The share of elementary pupils showing proficiency in language and math skills is less than half the statewide average.
  • The percentage of students graduating from high school in four years has dropped by 5 percent since 2009, to 53 percent.
  • Only 37 percent of high school graduates go on to attend a four-year college.

The city is a ward of the state.

  • State aid covers 40 percent of the city’s operating budget, more than the 37 percent provided via the city property tax and other municipal revenue.
  • The state provides city schools with 89 percent of its operating revenue.
  • Less than 2 percent of the city budget is spent on economic development, culture and recreation, health and community services and debt service on capital projects. The lion’s share is spent on the wages and benefits of city employees, primarily police and fire.
  • While city finances have improved, the budget still has a structural deficit that requires one-shots to balance the books.

The details can be found in the accompanying PowerPoint and video of my Feb. 24 presentation. I also discussed my findings in an interview taped last week with Susan Arbetter of The Capitol Pressroom.

The PowerPoint above includes slides that speak to the “State of Investigative Post,” in which I recapped our progress during 2015. That portion of the presentation, not included in the video, was proceeded by opening remarks from Maryalice Demler of our partners at WGRZ and Anthony Bannon, executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

The video was produced by Paget Films and Ryan Zenner. The PowerPoint was produced by Bicycle Creative.

The event was sponsored by William Barnhardi Law Offices, the M&T Bank Foundation, Talking Leaves Books, R&P Oak Hill Development, NOCO Energy, WGRZ and The Public.

I encourage you to share this post, as it provides a lot of vital data and an independent perspective that needs to be heard. As I noted in my closing remarks, while Buffalo is experiencing a modest recovery, our most serious problems remain unresolved, and, in some instances, unaddressed altogether.