Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed city budget is awash in federal pandemic relief funds. It’s bolstered by the restoration of long withheld Seneca casino money. And, on top of those windfalls, Brown has proposed a property tax hike for only the second time since he took office in 2006.
The city needs all the money it can get. Operating costs keep rising.
For example, among the spending increases in Brown’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1:
- Police spending would rise $5.4 million, an increase of 6.3 percent. Most of that would pay for 45 new officers. Some is for new tools like ShotSpotter, a service that blankets high-crime neighborhoods with microphones to detect gunshots and report their location to police. The service costs $90,000 per square mile covered annually.
- Fire spending would rise more than $5 million, an increase of 7.7 percent. More than half of that is an increased allocation for overtime.
- The mayor’s office would get a boost of $1.8 million. That’s a 28.7 percent increase over last year — and 71.7 percent higher than four years ago. Almost half the increase is for salaries, including new appointed positions dealing with climate change and diversity. There are also significant increases in budgeting for “services” over previous years, plus $753,000 in “capital outlay.”
- The Common Council’s budget would rise more than $400,000, an increase of 13.5 percent. That’s almost all salary increases.
Those salary-driven increases do not include the cost of pensions and benefits, which comprise nearly one-third of the city’s annual expenses. Those lines in the budget are 22 percent higher than they were four years ago, though the mayor’s budget predicts only a modest 1.5 percent increase over last year.
Costs are up across the board. The city’s law department is up 40 percent over last year. Streets and sanitation is up more than 20 percent. The city clerk’s budget is down compared to last year, but more than a third higher than it was four years ago.
The Brown administration has struggled over the past decade to find revenue streams to meet the rising costs of basic city services, particularly police and fire, without raising property taxes.
Federal pandemic relief funds granted the mayor a temporary respite from that struggle. Brown’s proposed budget uses $52.6 million from the feds to help cover $568 million in spending. The current budget year, which ends June 30, relied on $50.4 million in COVID money.
But the federal relief is gone after next year.
The return of casino payments, held back by the Seneca Nation of Indians for the past five years, is not enough on its own to eliminate the persistent deficits that led Brown to spend more than $100 million in savings over his past two terms.
Last fall, Brown pilloried his challenger, India Walton, for saying the city needed to raise property taxes to keep up with costs. Now, six months after he was reelected, Brown has tacitly acknowledged she was correct.
Under Brown’s proposed budget, the tax rate for individual homeowners would rise by about 5 percent. (By comparison, Walton proposed a 3 percent hike for homeowners.) The commercial property rate would rise by 6.6 percent.
On top of that, the separate fee residents and business owners pay for trash collection would rise about 4 percent.
These tax hikes follow a citywide reassessment two years ago that significantly raised the taxable value of properties in many neighborhoods.
The city’s overall property tax levy — the total dollar amount it collects from property owners — would increase by almost 4.4 percent. Because that figure exceeds state law’s 2 percent annual cap on property tax levy increases, two-thirds of the Council must approve.
The Council begins budget hearings with department heads this coming Monday.
There will be a public hearing on Brown’s budget proposal in Council chamber on Tuesday. That same day, Buffalo Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams is due to release her office’s evaluation of Brown’s budget.
The city’s state-imposed control board, which must approve the mayor’s budget and four-year financial plan, meets Wednesday, May 18.
The Council must submit any proposed changes to the mayor by May 22, according to the city charter. A budget must be finalized by June 8.