Feb 12


Political Post: Tax hikes for snowplows

Mayor Byron Brown told residents he might need to raise taxes if they expected their streets plowed promptly. But that's just one of many reasons the city is desperate for revenue.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

This column was adopted from Investigative Post’s weekly “Political Post” newsletter. Subscribe here and get “Political Post” in your inbox every Wednesday morning.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown told the Buffalo News editorial board two weeks ago that sending snowplows down side streets in the immediate aftermath of a snowstorm might require a tax hike.

Clearing residential streets promptly is a new, boutique service, Brown claimed, never before contemplated in what he called “the standard city snow plan.”

“But now, the public is saying, ‘We don’t want that. We want more than that,’” Brown told The News. 

“‘We don’t just want our main streets and our secondary streets opened up, but we simultaneously want our residential streets opened up.’”

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And if that’s what residents want from the Department of Public Works, he said, they’ll have to pay.

“I just want to bring it to the attention of the public that the expectation people have, what they want to see, what they want done, is very expensive,” Brown said.

Brown said clearing city streets after back-to-back snowstorms last month cost $6.6 million, including overtime for city workers and more than $5 million for private contractors. 

That’s a lot of money, but it’s hardly the only reason the Brown administration has to raise property taxes.

How about the new police contract, which took four-and-a-half years to negotiate and was hurriedly approved in a special session of the Common Council last month with virtually no debate or analysis?

That contract, which retroactively covers the previous three fiscal years and expires in 2025, increased personnel costs $69.7 million over its full term, according to an analysis last month by the city’s control board. And $19.5 million of that increase is currently unfunded, according to the control board, which suggested the city implement a “soft hiring freeze,” among other measures, to cover the cost.

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It’s not to pay the $43 million a court awarded last fall to a woman paralyzed by a Buffalo cop who hit her (and others) with his patrol car?

The city had to borrow the money to pay that judgment, adding an estimated $10 million to the cash-strapped city’s annual debt service for each of the next five years.

It’s not to remedy Brown’s year-after-year refusal to raise property taxes, while the city’s costs soared and revenues remained stagnant?

Brown’s anti-tax zealotry over more than a decade cost the city $109 million in reserves used to balance budgets, according to the city comptroller. Costs increased at twice the rate of inflation in that period, while revenue didn’t even keep pace with inflation. In 2021, the city collected less in taxes than it did 15 years earlier, when Brown was new to the office.

But residents demanding reasonable plowing services in a city famous for snowfall — that’s the cause of Buffalo’s future budget problems, according to its four-and-a-half term mayor.

Brown’s assertion earned a dishonorable mention last week in City & State’s Winners & Losers column. The wags at City & State suggested the mayor “hit up Bills fans” the Pegulas hired to shovel out Highmark Stadium for the Bills-Chiefs playoff game.

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The Council recently adopted a resolution asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to redefine its definition of natural disasters to include snowstorms, so that Buffalo can apply for federal money to help cover its costs.

Brown, meanwhile, went to Albany this week to lobby state legislators to increase the state’s annual payments to municipalities. That aid package hasn’t changed since 2012: Buffalo gets $161.2 million each year. This budget year that sum amounts to nearly 30 percent of the city’s revenue. It’s the biggest single source of income for the city.

Property taxes, scheduled to raise $159.4 million this budget year, are a close second.

Brown also asked the state legislature to restructure the way Erie County splits sales tax among governments. That’s the city’s third largest source of cash, forecast to total $111.3 million this budget year. 

Brown noted that county sales tax was increased from 7 percent to 8 percent in 1985, when the county was facing a financial crisis. That additional 1 percent wasn’t shared among municipalities the same way as the other 7 percent.

If the additional 1 percent had been shared “according to the original formula for the seven percent,” Brown said, Buffalo would have received an additional $1.2 billion in sales tax between 1986 and 2022.

Brown wants the county to start sharing that additional money.

“This is a major inequity that should be corrected by an act of this State Legislature,” he said. 

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