The conversation, organized by local regionalism pusher Kevin Gaughan, was called to discuss how to develop a regional approach to the future, not, as The Buffalo News claimed, to talk about what a control board means to the city and region.
Citizen participants, along with a handful of thoughtful community and political leaders, showed up with a lot of questions, a few suggestions, and a host of grievances. From Hickory Woods activists and union leaders to one gentleman who inquired when the city became our baby-sitter, all manner of voices clamored for answers and accountability from the two most visible figures, Mayor Anthony Masiello and County Executive Joel Giambra.
Unfortunately answers and accountability were in short supply. No vision for the future was offered, and both men managed to avoid directly answering any questions throughout the entire session.
Undaunted by the lack of realism offered, we here at Alt figured that it was time to soften things up a bit and ask local leaders what comes next. Where does the city go from here?
Surprisingly enough, neither Giambra nor Masiello had any interest in answering this question either. The mayors office failed to return phone calls, and Giambra staffer Linda Bagley replied to our statement that wed like to know whats going on in that office with a laughing, so would we.
Other officials contacted were reluctant to comment on the immediate or long-term future of Buffalo until all of the details concerning the control board were in. It seems the coming of the control board has caused many of the tight-lipped local public officials to become even more reserved. Even the normally open PBA head Robert Meegan declined to talk until the deal was done.
The Control Board is Coming, The Control Board is Coming
Common Council President James Pitts, a man rarely at a loss for words, was quite critical of the imposition of a financial control board, claiming that the cry for a control board is all part of a pitch to make the city seem dysfunctional.
If you go to the suburbs, you get your lawn, your house, and your half a kid, said Pitts. The city isnt the problem, its the policies supporting suburbanization that have been the cause of the problems of the city. Industrial cities, such as Buffalo, have been made to be seen as unhealthy places to live.
Pitts said that most of the community redevelopment programs that the federal government pitches, especially the categorical ones, such as low-income housing programs, are designed to show cities as dysfunctional places. Despite the citys current fiscal crunch, Pitts noted that Buffalo is not bankrupt, a point made by New York State Deputy Comptroller Thomas Sanzillo at the Buffalo Conversation.
Back in the early eighties, the county was faced with similar fiscal problems. It faced a $75 million deficit and had to resort to the temporary one percent sales tax increase for new revenue. According to Pitts, there was no similar call for a state control board.
The county was a dollar and a deficit away from a control board, said Pitts. At that time, there was a call to come together to save the county. Thats not happening this time. I dont see much difference between what Giambras regionalism is presented as and a control board. The city is still being taken over.
Buffalo Teacher Federation leader Philip Rumore had a similar take on the imposition of a financial control board, claiming that the city is being forced into pauperism on purpose. One can read into this that theyre purposely trying to destroy the city, Rumore said. The county is holding their fingers around the throat of the city and constricting it. Everybody has to realize that were being starved for resources.
Rumore took issue with the county executives belief that money wont solve the problems facing the city, especially since throwing money at the problem is what saved Erie County from going bust two decades ago.
I was around when Erie County got into trouble, Rumore said. At that time, no one was saying that we need a control board. No one was saying, lets not throw money at the problem. On the contrary, people got together and said, if we need to raise taxes, lets do it.
The different approach taken toward the city smacks of hypocrisy to Rumore. Now that its the City of Buffalo, mostly poor people, whats the first thing that comes to mind, a control board. What do they say, lets not throw money at the problem. If we would have done the same thing way back when the county was in trouble, we would have been saying that the county needs a control board. We dont need to give extra money to the county.
Business First, as Always
One of the powers that the financial control board may have is the ability to abrogate union contracts and to freeze wages and hiring for municipal employees so that the city can get its financial house in order. Many participants in the Buffalo Conversation seemed to believe that public employee unions are part of the problem, but they seem to be missing the fact that government is the largest employer in the region. And, if local governments start trimming jobs, the sputtering Buffalo job market is going to be awash in skilled, highly educated, and experienced workers desperately looking for nonexistent jobs.
These people may displace current workers, forcing them to leave the region, or they may elect to leave. Either way, it amounts to more people leaving the region, which, in turn, will mean less revenue for local government, resulting in fewer services and higher taxes, the same problems that we face today.
The distinct possibility of the problem getting worse is what makes some in the business community believe the exact opposite of Pitts and Rumore, that the control board may actually be beneficial to Buffalo and the region as a whole.
Dennis Penman, executive vice president of MJ Peterson, a local real estate development company, said that he believes that a strong control board is a good thing because it may be able to implement changes that local officials are reluctant to attempt.
Its too bad we had to get to this point, Penman said. We have to have a certain degree of patience, but lets approach it positively to see if we can get a substantive change in how government is run in Buffalo.
One such change that Penman would like to see is the approach to local government revenues and expenses. According to Penman, the budgets and administrations of the city and its schools shouldnt be viewed as separate entities when it comes to assessing local finances. Looking at the school and city administrations in total gives you almost one billion dollars in resources to draw from, said Penman said.
Another opportunity that Penman sees is that the control board may be able to look at the consolidation of services, such as merging the Buffalo Police Department and Erie County Sheriffs Department, currently being championed by Giambra, and to assess their economic viability.
This talk of changing how Buffalo is run and viewing public school money as assets doesnt mean that Penman agrees with those who feel government should be run more like businesses. He said that he feels that the two entities have different missions and that they address different concerns in society.
Government and business are separate ideas, Penman said. But, one should be able to use reasonable business practices in governance. The drums have been beating for a while now, and, unless some political squabble in Albany holds up the decision by the time that this issue of Alt hits the streets, the make-up and powers of the state-imposed financial control board will be set. The citys fiscal problems have been well documented in the pages of this paper, by some local politicians and business leaders, as well as by various community groups.