Jun 17


Buffalo needs a hard control board

City Hall is approaching a financial cliff. Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council have shown they don't have the stomach to make the hard decisions that lie ahead. Chaos could await us. It's time for adult supervision.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Mayor Byron Brown made it clear last week he has no intention of resolving the city’s pending fiscal crisis.

In an interview with Deidre Williams of The Buffalo News, the mayor said rather than cutting spending, he’s looking for increased revenue from the county, state and perhaps federal governments to close a projected deficit of at least $41 million for the budget year starting July 2025. 

In fact, the feds have already been bailing him out. In the past three budgets, the city has used $100 million in federal pandemic aid to balance the books. It expects to use at least another $30 million in the budget year that begins July 1. 

That follows the mayor and the Common Council burning through $109 million in reserves since the city’s state-imposed financial control board went soft in 2012. Brown and the Council opted to draw down those reserves rather than raise property taxes to keep pace with rising expenses.

Watch the summary of Geoff Kelly’s budget analysis from 2021. It still holds true today.

As Williams noted in her story, county and state officials aren’t receptive to the idea of bailing out City Hall. They’ve said no to giving the city a bigger share of county sales tax receipts and no to a hotel occupancy tax that requires Albany’s approval. 

The state did kick in an additional $5 million in general operating aid for this budget year and the next, but that’s the first increase in 12 years. Given the state’s own looming budget woes, I don’t expect Albany to increase aid again in the foreseeable future. At least not significantly.

The state is already doing more than its fair share to help out the city. State aid this year is $166.3 million — the second biggest source of revenue for the city’s $617.5 million spending plan, after property taxes.

The school district has long been a ward of the state. Aid from Albany of $939 million accounts for the lion’s share of the Buffalo school district’s $1.2 billion billion budget. The city is kicking in only $70.7 million. That number has barely budged in decades. 

Put another way: The state is already paying most of the city’s bills. Spending on schools and municipal services total $1.7 billion; the state is covering $1.1 billion of that.

If I’m a state lawmaker, I’d tell City Hall to clean up its own mess.

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So here’s the situation: The mayor doesn’t want to act. The Council hasn’t made him, rubber-stamping budget after budget. The control board has failed to use its bully pulpit to press city officials to act responsibly. Hell, the governor can’t even be bothered to fill four vacancies on what should be a nine-member panel. There’s times it can’t meet for a lack of a quorum.

Folks, it’s time to reimpose a hard control board. City Hall needs adult supervision.

The state imposed a hard control board in 2003, in response to the last time a mayor drove the city to the brink of a fiscal cliff. The state bailed out the city then, but empowered the control board to review — and, if it deemed necessary, to reject — all labor contracts. All expenditures over $50,000 had to go through the board, which imposed wage and hiring freezes. 

Its sometimes draconian measures were decried by the city’s labor unions as undemocratic, but they succeeded in righting the fiscal ship and building reserve funds for a city that had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. By 2012, the control board’s directors voted to relinquish strict oversight powers and take an advisory role.

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Brown’s argument against cutting from the current budget is that it would hurt the delivery of services. 

“Who would pick up your garbage?” Brown asked The News.

Actually, the cost of trash collection is supposed to be covered by a separate user fee. 

Almost one-third of the city’s entire operating budget — 30 percent — goes to pay for fringe benefits, primarily pensions and health insurance. Better pensions and health insurance than practically any city taxpayer enjoys. 

Another 30 percent of the budget pays for the police and fire departments, the consequence of, among other factors, the average cop making $100,000 a year. Again, a lot more than the average city taxpayer.

On the other hand, there’s not much money set aside for dealing with the city’s deep-seated problems related to poverty and segregation — housing, public health, community development. For those sorts of programs, the city largely relies on state and county governments — those same entities Brown insists should bail him out now.

To look at the city budget, you’d never know May 14 happened. Or that hundreds of kids a year continue to be diagnosed with lead poisoning. 

Look, City Hall has never been a bastion of best practices or smart budget priorities. But the mismanagement is approaching a crisis point. Brown and the Council need to stop asking for handouts and begin helping themselves and the residents they supposedly serve. If they won’t do it, a control board is necessary to do it for them.

Investigative Post

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