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© 2004 The Beast

Control Freaks

Will the Control Board Save Our City?

By Eric Gauchat


The issues have been with us for a long time now. Bankruptcy. Fading population. Enormous spending wastes. High taxes. Bureaucratic red tape. In fact, they’ve been in our faces for so long, writing about them at this point is nauseating. Every day, we awake to a decrepit bear of a city, miles and miles of asphalt and crumbling buildings; vast boulevards of problems, inefficiency, all of the human faces behind windshields and a ton of steel. We watch the twilight of our city estranged, the fading of brilliance and beauty that unkempt, has produced a labyrinth of issues that raise a lot of complaint, bafflement, and bitter anger.

Here’s a lowdown on our upcoming financial situation: Taxes are getting higher, we’re losing the parks system to the county, and health care costs for the city are still skyrocketing, $5.5 million dollars from last year alone. Property taxes are being levied at over $146 million this year. According to the Mayor’s executive budget announcement, state aid has not changed in 5 years, and no aid has been received based on the city’s reform requests.

We know this. This situation hasn’t changed yet, and the current plans of change and reform will take years to make the situation “better.” Incessant are the talks of regional plans for stability, new money making schemes, and government funded business proposals with lots of spin. As the years march past, there will be less people here, less tax money, and even more problems cropping up.

These are tough issues, and they will continue to be. We can expect, by the time Giambra and Masiello are running for their tired old offices again, exactly no change. They have a plan, though, for these tough times; a 4-year plan to get us out of the proverbial hole.

The Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority. That’s the real name of that “control board” you’ve heard so much, and yet so little about. The Authority was created in Albany, due to our economic woes, which had become a real threat to the state’s bankroll. Legislated hurriedly in July 2003, the BFSA Act created this “public benefit corporation,” and gave it the power to lift Buffalo from its economic plague. The BFSA controls a great deal of borrowing power; CEO and President of M&T Robert Wilmers sits on the board. This borrowing power can benefit the city tremendously, helping to establish a way out of our current debts, albeit by creating new ones, without carving the city’s services and essential needs—too much. In order to access the majority of these great loans that will keep the city afloat some time, Buffalo has to make budgetary concessions as they see fit.

A plan has been devised by the BFSA to allow Buffalo to become economically stable within 4 years. This plan was drafted hastily, given strictures within the legislation itself, and was only given public review for a few days before the first public forum allowed residents to voice their opinions of the plan. Some might remember the hurried affair at the forum, though only 129 comments were submitted by residents. Back then, with little knowledge of the situation, Buffalonians expressed to the mysterious “Control Board” their thoughts and feelings about the crises they face. The overwhelming response of even those few was strong opposition to the details of the plan, and media outlets in the city hounded its shortcomings as well. This budgetary plan was met with resistance and, much more deadly, ignorance. This plan remained largely unchanged by the next year, when Mayor Masiello’s official 2004-2005 fiscal budget was due. On May 8, another forum was convened, with only 33 citizens submitting comments this time. The discussion was opened to the new budget, as well as “The Great Plan,” and those few comments were still mostly criticisms of the new financial groundwork being built. Apparently nobody seemed too concerned at the time, and a good part of the May 8 comments had to do with the Buffalo Animal Shelter.

The opposition to these plans seemed to have a decent basis when I first heard of them, but I decided to take a closer look, as the new fiscal year starts rolling around, and check out why, exactly, this plan seemed to suck so much. It wasn’t long before I felt the familiar sensation of bewildered disbelief I get whenever I read anything the knuckleheads who seem drawn to lead our area have drawn out. It doesn’t bode well, and here’s how it’s planned:

The Plan: The City and the School District need a lot of money. By 2008, the combined gap would be around $163 million. The City and the schools have to cut minimum amounts of that debt every year. The BFSA will fork over the rest of the cash and cover the bills. This theory is based on some major assumptions, including Buffalo continuing to accrue the same amount of revenue, with no increase, while cutting their costs until they break even. After that, the city continues on its own, without the former infrastructure it once had, hoping to stay afloat.

Major blows during the four years will include: increasing property taxes and garbage fees, while laying off uniformed police and firefighters. 10 school closings are also included in the plan, with the school district forcing students into maximum class sizes to save costs. Meanwhile, 2 new charter schools have been commissioned in Buffalo, creating a new drain on funds from the state and the local district, but I suppose having at least some decent schools is an adventurous swing in city planning. The fiscal plan also assumes huge new streams of revenue, specifically from sales taxes given by Erie County, as well as loads of state aid, which simply has been missing, apparently, for some time. Merging county and city fire and police dispatches has also been planned for the future.

That’s, sadly enough, pretty much it for the fabulous new plan. There are no provisions for actual capital building, no moneymaking strategies, no actual attempts to fix the underlying issues. They seem to be missing the reason why there’s so much debt here: there is no money! Sure, they can bottom out the city’s services, cut out the needs and protections that municipalities are supposed to provide for their citizens, but when this is all over, and a new set of bills accrues, where will the dollars come from? Certainly not the fleeing residents, vans and cars loaded and packed for greener pastures.

This year in particular managed to stand out in this mess….

The Budget: Elections are hot this year, and Buffalo is not out of the heat. This year is important for Big Tony’s public image. The budget he submitted was historic for several reasons, as he was keen to point out in his executive address. It was the first to be produced under supervision—obviously, we haven’t needed to have our city’s budget written by other people before. Also, it’s the first to include giving over the parks system to the county—again, obviously, Buffalo hasn’t ever done that before. In fact, he didn’t really write or conceive this budget, as it was already dictated by the BFSA plan. Just a formality, really, to have the city budget done up to those specifications, instead of trying to jerk around the law to let a corporation do it themselves. Luckily, Masiello doesn’t have to skirt around the very serious school issues during this all important election time. The BFSA is using aid from the state to cover all those gaps this years, so only after Tony has another term will his yearly budgets have to include the ugly details of closing schools, firing teachers, and telling parents and students to suck it. In fact, while they and the police department and fire brigades just have to deal with the cuts, not a single other staff section at City Hall is being touched.

This is shameful. This is the best they could come up with? Sure, it’s probably going to effectively seal up the problems for a few years, but then what? The Mayor off-handedly remarked in his comments on his budget that the $7 million dollars being offered up by Erie County may not be available due to the monetary strain currently being produced by Medicaid and that, should Giambra not be able to squeeze it from his comfy new computer chair and desk, a complete merger of governments will be necessary. These forgotten words may illuminate the real motives behind a listless and uninspired financial plan. It seems we’ve reached the end of the road, or at least the city has, and our leadership, too. We’re all locked into this for the next four years, new Mayor or not. Our residents, “edumacated” in our atrophying school system and on increasingly lawless streets, will determine the future after that. A fatalistic picture, perhaps, but I’m feeling pretty grim after looking at the situation.

 

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