The worst governments, agencies in WNY

Our region is poorly governed. Here's the worst culprits.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Western New York is saddled with a lot of bad governmental bodies and departments in need of reform. Some cost a lot of money in the form of high taxes, others are simply ineffective, and still more are outright corrupt.

There are some 105 units of local government in Erie and Niagara counties — that is, cities, towns, villages and school districts. And countless other departments, authorities, taxing districts and the like. With apologies to David Letterman’s late, great Top Ten list, here’s my take on the worst of the worst, with the list getting progressively worse as you read on.

Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations: There are plenty of bogus boards and panels in local government, but the City of Buffalo’s Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations takes the cake. It was created as a place for citizens to take allegations of civil rights abuses, especially at the hands of city police. It has subpoena power and a budget to investigate those

A version of this column published in Buffalo Spree

allegations. But instead of using that power and its budget, the commission does nothing. In 2018, it didn’t even meet. Its well paid executive director — in 2020 he earned $93,551, his assistant $48,702 — didn’t file an annual report for 2019, as required by the city charter, until pressured to do so by the Common Council at the height of this summer’s unrest over city policing policies. That report, the commission’s first since 2009, consisted largely of a list of glad-handing events the mayoral appointee attended.

U.S. Attorney’s Office: I’m sure the Buffalo office does some fine work. Prosecuting corruption isn’t on its radar screen, however. It’s been that way for, well, a long time. I mean, who prosecuted corruption in the Buffalo Billion program? Yeah, it was the U.S. Attorney — in Manhattan. Preet Bharara found wrongdoing right under Bill Hochul’s nose. These days, the feds have been sniffing around City Hall for, well, a long time. Nothing. The FBI has been investigating the Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp. for two years, and again, nothing. Maybe President Biden can appoint a prosecutor whose interest extends beyond prolonging the War on Drugs.

Niagara County Legislature: Lawmakers spent years fighting calls for public access to lawmakers’ financial disclosures, which list potential conflicts of interest. The Legislature, long controlled by Republicans, only recently agreed, the last county in the state to do so, but vowed not to release any old disclosures. There’s also the grant writing contract that benefited Niagara GOP bigwigs. Critics called it “rigged,” investigators “suspect.” Then there’s the Legislature’s public relations office. There have been three public information officers, or PIOs.  The first faced repeated allegations of partisanship, but ultimately resigned for personal reasons. The replacement was on the job less than a year before he sent out a mass email boosting the candidacy of the Legislature’s incumbent chairman from a government email address. An internal investigation found nothing, of course, but he left the job anyway. He was replaced in short order with a convicted felon at the heart of the Buffalo Billion scandal. 

Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority: Commonly known as the control board, it’s probably the most toothless watchdog in WNY. Charged with overseeing City Hall finances, it often can’t even muster a quorum because Gov. Andrew Cuomo has failed for years to fill vacant seats. The dysfunctional control board has dithered as the city has burned through $100 million in reserves and plunged headfirst into a sea of red ink. Erie County has a control board, too, which is notable mostly for doing nothing. Not, as in the case of the city control board, because they can’t, but because there’s nothing to be done. County finances are relatively stable. The county control board is a vestige of the 2004 red-green budget fiasco, which was more a political crisis than a long-term financial crisis such as the city faced when it got its control board a year earlier. Nonetheless, the county control board continues to exist and to cost taxpayers money — almost a half million dollars last year alone.

Buffalo Board of Education: No elected body in WNY squanders more public dollars. Its budget is nearly $1 billion and constantly growing in the face of shrinking enrollment. Graduation rates have improved, but still more than a quarter of students fail to graduate from high school. Many of those who do require extensive remediation in college to acquire the necessary language and math skills. Superintendent Kriner Cash has nevertheless received plenty of kudos, despite failing at his most important mission, bringing fiscal sanity to the district’s prodigious spending. An example: The last time I checked, the district was spending more on health insurance for retired teachers than on active ones — some $66 million a year. And not just any old health insurance, but gold-plated coverage. Apparently, the Board of Education would prefer to spend the money on white, suburban retirees than on black and brown school children.

City Hall: The place is in the midst of a meltdown. A decade of bad budgeting, coupled with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, left city government at least $65 million in the red, with no public plan to close the gap. Riding to the rescue: federal stimulus money tied to the pandemic. The city police

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department gobbles up 27 percent of the budget and has a reputation for racism and brutality that neither Mayor Byron Brown nor the Common Council want to address. You can count the number of competent election officials on one hand and have a couple of fingers left over.  Oh, and Brown is running for a fifth term to give us more of the same.

Erie County Comptroller’s Office: Stefan Mychajliw never misses an opportunity to express solidarity with bigots, rogue cops and right-wing vigilante types. No surprise, given his past association with the likes of J.D. Crane, the notorious owner of the notorious Tonawanda Coke Corp. Mychajliw has done a lousy job as comptroller and had a falling out with the local Republican establishment over his failed candidacy to succeed Chris Collins in Congress. He’s running for Hamburg Town Supervisor; hopefully town voters will have other thoughts.

Buffalo Police Department: The mayor and Common Council have failed to address provisions in the city’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association that strips the department’s leadership of key management rights. As a result, seniority, rather than competency, dictates most assignments; it’s very difficult to discipline bad cops; and officers on the cusp of retirement are allowed to pile up overtime to pad their pensions, driving up the city’s costs in the process. And it doesn’t end there: a shortage of cop cars sidelines many officers in their precincts when they should be responding to 911 calls. In fairness, the BPD operates more professionally than the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Tim Howard’s management of county jails has been more than callous and inhumane; it’s been deadly.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement: ICE runs a detention center in Batavia that houses up to 600 people with ongoing immigration cases or pending deportation orders. You’ll find little compassion inside the compound, and not much human decency from ICE outside the detention center walls, either. Those with cases before the court in Batavia face particularly slim odds of winning. Some of those detained work in a “voluntary” labor program for just $1 a day. And for people who are released, the detention center has the nasty history of dumping them at nearby bus stop without notifying their relatives or attorneys or providing them sufficient bus fare to find their way to safe quarters. 

Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp: Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the worst of the worst of the worst. Where do I even begin? For years, and against the advice of the state Attorney General, among others, it’s been providing its part-time board members with gold-plated health insurance. When they were called out on it, CEO Henry Wojtaszek and other OTB officials said they’d revisit the subject. They never did. OTB executives and board members treated themselves to free tickets and booze at Bills and Sabres games, then claimed it was all on the up-and-up. It wasn’t. And the hits just keep on coming. Last summer, OTB, a state-created public benefit corporation whose retired employees draw a state pension, managed to land a $3.2 million forgivable loan via the Paycheck Protection Program intended to help small businesses keep their workers employed. OTB then turned around and laid off some 300 employees. Finally, OTB fired its second in command in December, for the apparent sin of cooperating with the FBI when agents came calling with questions about potentially illegal activity.