One gentleman who seems to be above scrutiny thus far has been M&T Bank Chief Robert “Control Board Bob” Wilmers. What has been his role in the project?

First of all, when talking about bankers and public authorities in New York State, it’s important to remember that a “public authority” has been set up to oversee the project. Traditionally, going back to the days of the “empire-builder” Robert Moses, public authorities have offered bankers great power over the ability to both generate and control public debt. According to a recent study over ninety percent of New York State debt is attributable to public authorities. Almost no substantive reform of State public authorities has taken place, although many studies have been made.

One of the worst ripoffs in New York State history involved the fleecing of a similar school construction authority setup in New York City in the seventies. A political-business-criminal nexus of remarkable efficiency skimmed of millions in a textbook seminar of graft under the noses of a City administration in economic and political turmoil.

Question: Will the Schools Construction Authority in Buffalo be any different? Answer: It may not be. We can only hope that internal squabbling such as the dirty laundry that recently aired in Artvoice will lead to further revelations. So far, though there has been no pressure exerted on the Offices of State Comptroller and Attorney General to investigate. So the more likely scenario is that critics will be silenced and the staus quo will continue in earnest.

The JSCA was wrought with peril for taxpayers from its inception. One public hearing was quietly relocated to the friendly confines of East Aurora, historical birthplace of Millard Fillmore and his entourage of “know-nothings.” It was determined that new schools constructed in Buffalo would be owned by Erie County – an early indication that the project would be a political football in the upcoming wars of “regionalism.”

The first casualty may have been former Buffalo School Superintendent James Harris. In an Alt article about the machinations of Bob Wilmers to bring in a school superintendent he could control, we wrote,

“One need only look back on the bitter fight to remove former Buffalo School Superintendent James Harris to realize how politically significant the position of superintendent in Buffalo really is. Harris’ opponents dropped an artificial funding crisis on him. The Buffalo News took the unprecedented step of running leaked excerpts of his personnel file on the front page, top of the fold Sunday edition. The fact that several people in the Board of Education disliked Harris was all the evidence that was necessary to turn public opinion against him. The movement to remove him, we were all assured, was not racist. Furthermore, people who suspected a racial element in this character assassination must be ‘playing the race card themselves.’”

“Behind the scenes, what was at stake in the Harris crisis was control over the Joint School Construction Authority’s bonding. Harris, prior to his dismissal, was reportedly leaning toward Morgan Stanley. His opponents favored Salomon Smith Barney. Guess who wound up with the bonding contract? Maybe the most important color in this conflict was green, after all.”

Shortly after one billion dollars in bonding was okayed, the push to scale back the amount of construction on new schools was on. Why build so many new schools when new charter schools would eliminate the need for them? Reducing the financial risks associated with the original scope of the Authority’s projects would theoretically make the bonds a better investment - another incentive for Wilmers to push the charter school agenda.

After that article was published, Heidrick & Struggles, the search firm that was hired with Wilmers’ money to find a new Superintendent, came up with a single candidate, the current Superintendent, James Williams. The controversial Williams has done Wilmers’ dirty work right down to sniping at black school principals with stereotypical racial generalizations.

In 2004, the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, better known as the “Control Board,” made news with their announcement that they would become involved in the fiscal affairs of Buffalo’s Joint Schools Construction Board.

Citing concerns over projected enrollment estimates in City schools as a reason for Control Board involvement, Control Board Chief Thomas E. Baker told The Buffalo News, “…I think it's important that someone like ourselves have some level of oversight."

Clearly “Control Board Bob” Wilmers has a great deal of oversight and is one of the single most important figures exerting influence over the future of public education in the City of Buffalo. His interest may extend beyond his penchant for union-busting and have more to do with a desire for power and control over important financial resources in a community facing ever-increasing poverty.

Interestingly, one of the most prominent critics cited in the Artvoice series has been Delaware North Cos. brahmin and charter school advocate, Chris Jacobs. One would think that Jacobs, as a member of the Buffalo Club elite would be on board with the Wilmers program and yet he appears to be siding with the enemy camp in demanding that the Buffalo School Board be given a seat on the board of the JSCA. What gives?

Given the tremendous influence of development guru Larry Quinn over the editorial direction of Artvoice one must ask whether that paper’s attacks on Ciminelli are sour grapes over the aftermath of the Quinn-Higgins shakedown of the New York State Power Authority (formerly chaired by Louis Ciminelli). Quinn and Higgins didn’t get all the money they wanted for waterfront development and Buffalo cultural institutions.

It’s possible that the squabbling over the JSCA is an ongoing struggle over control of the money that was allocated to the new waterfront authority by the NYSPA. It’s also possible, however, that Ciminelli’s control over the JSCA is causing concern for bondholders. Will the project become a fiasco, a la NYC circa 1975? No investor in his right mind would want to buy into that.

One thing that can’t be argued is that control over public authorities remains rife with political skullduggery. New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi can talk all he wants about reforming these octopi, but until that time in which said reform legislation is actually passed we ought to think long and hard before we allow new authorities to be formed. This past year saw the creation of a control board for Erie County and an authority to handle waterfront development.

If we here in WNY continue to create these opaque debt-creation machines at the clip of two a year without any real reform, chances are the only creatures left to pay off the debt they rack up will be the cockroaches and rats that inherit the wasteland formerly known as the City of Buffalo, NY.

Online: Buffalo News admits to Warren Buffett’s financial involvement in the Detroit International Bridge Co. & the “Great Bridge Debates” – kind of.

New Slogan for 2006: I Am Casino Buffalo! By John McMahon

Recently Artvoice published a two part series on Buffalo’s Joint Schools Construction Authority (JSCA). The series aired complaints over the awarding of contracts, allegations of favoritism towards local construction powerhouse, Ciminelli, and concerns over the general lack of transparency of the project intended to rejuvenate Buffalo’s aged public school infrastructure. Of course, many of the parties involved in the Artvoice debate over the JSCA are also involved with the charter school movement, which is bringing the public school system to its fiscal knees.