by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
India Walton is running for mayor, seeking to dethrone Byron Brown, who is seeking a record fifth term. She is far from the ideal candidate, lacking experience in government you’d like to see in a candidate seeking executive office. I mean, it’s one thing to be an inexperienced legislative backbencher, another to be managing a city with a $500 million budget and a workforce of nearly 2,700.
Walton, then, is a bit of an unknown. On the other hand, we know all about Brown.
Consider his sorry track record:
Mismanagement of city finances: Brown inherited a hard control board that socked away $166 million in reserves. Since the control board went soft in 2012, Brown has burned through more than $100 million of those reserves to plug budget deficits. Spending has not been the problem, although the cost of employee benefits has spiraled. The major problems have been Brown’s poor budget forecasting — he keeps counting on revenue that doesn’t materialize — and his refusal to raise property taxes, which the city has done only once during his time in office. The result: budget deficits and the city’s continued reliance on state aid, which accounts for 30 percent of the city’s revenues, to balance its books.
Failure to reform the police department: The problem isn’t limited to police misconduct. The department has poor relations with the minority community and a middling track record of solving crime — and its homicide clearance rate is pathetically poor, although the gang shootings behind many of the killing makes solving them a challenge. Brown made no effort to reform the department until
This is an updated version of a Buffalo Spree column in this month’s issue.
anti-racism protests last summer and the steps he’s taken since fall far short of what’s necessary. Most telling is his failure to even try to negotiate changes in the city’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association, which denies the department’s command of many essential management rights. The result: It’s difficult to discipline bad cops, and seniority, rather than competency, dictates assignments and promotions, including key command positions.
Targeting of vulnerable people to raise revenue: The police department’s now disbanded Strike Force and Housing units set up traffic checkpoints, primarily in low-income neighborhoods, and doled out tons of traffic tickets. The mayor then got the Common Council to go along with imposing 15 different fines and fees to make those tickets more lucrative. In response to last summer’s protests, the Common Council scaled back those fines and fees.
Targeting of everyone to raise revenue: That would be the speed cameras set up around 20 schools around the city to catch drivers going over 15 mph during school hours. It’s clearly a money grab. The cameras have ticked off a lot of people and ought to be Brown’s Fort Makowski, the bone-headed move by then mayor Stan Makowski to wall off McKinley Square that played a role in his election loss in 1977.
Failure for the longest time to address lead poisoning: Hundreds of inner-city kids every year are diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning is a life sentence that can result in learning, health and behavioral problems. Yet Brown for years refused to tackle the problem until the city finally adopted a good but incomplete plan last November. It remains to be seen if City Hall successfully executes its plan; there’s reason to be skeptical.
Failure to address poverty: Buffalo is one of the nation’s poorest cities, but the mayor has never seriously attempted to craft a strategy to address the problem. There’s no effort to help lift people out of poverty or improve the neighborhoods they live in.
Failure to invest in infrastructure and public buildings: Earlier in Brown’s tenure, the city commissioned a study that determined city-owned facilities — libraries, pools, community centers, City Hall itself — required more than $600 million worth of improvements, much of it to compensate for decades of neglect. The city has done little of the necessary work. There’s also a backlog of needed infrastructure improvements: streets, bridges, sewers, water lines. Brown, however, last year earmarked more than $1 million to upgrade his offices in City Hall — including new digs for his ever-growing public relations team — which says something about his priorities. Federal stimulus money, about $350 million, is headed our way and infrastructure improvements are an eligible expense. So, the city might be able to address a portion of its considerable infrastructure problems. But it will be no thanks to the mayor. And given the state of the city’s Public Works Department – it sometimes struggles to manage $20 million a year in capital projects – it’s questionable how much work it will be able to pump out.
Failure to address the city’s faltering school system: Given his ineptitude running City Hall, maybe we should be thankful Brown hasn’t tried to interject himself into the school district. But the schools continue to produce too many graduates and dropouts who lack the basic academic skills necessary to succeed in college or the working world. Only about a quarter of Buffalo students score at proficient levels in standardized tests for language and math skills. Employers say too many graduates lack, for example, basic math skills necessary to hold a job. Local colleges say they’re forced to provide remediation services to many city graduates to bring their reading and writing skills to the point where they can handle college-level work.
Bottom line: Brown has little to show for his more than 15 years in office. His major accomplishment is that he keeps getting himself re-elected. That he hasn’t attracted a name Democratic opponent this year is an indication of just how weak and timid the party’s bench is.