Buffalo's beginning experiences with the BFSA have been difficult for city officials and residents alike. The meetings on September 10 and September 15 revealed a process that seemed much like sausage making: messy and difficult to watch.

The adversarial nature of the process became clear on September 10, during Commissioner of Administration and Finance James B. Milroy's presentation.

"To close future gaps with property taxes, the city would soon exceed its constitutional taxing limits," Milroy said. The reforms that the city would have to make to balance its books "will cause pain," he added.

The BFSA offers the "last and best chance for saving the city," Milroy said hopefully.

And then, BFSA members asked questions and made comments, which seemed sharp and adversarial in tone. Robert Wilmers said that monthly cash flow statements. "bring clarity. When will you turn it in?" "You don't have reasonable assumptions," John Faso said. "In light of the gaps, why aren't you taking more aggressive action to reduce the head count (of city employees)?" Alair Townsend asked. "The state helped the city mask its problems until 9/11," Faso said. "You're asking us to approve a plan with no substance," said H. Carl McCall. Townsend said, "We have to make a decision based on whether the money is there. The help that you ask for is not available here."

Mayor Anthony Masiello responded, "We can borrow our way out. It will only prolong our problems. It will take state legislation to solve the problems." Milroy said, "We need across-the-board help. You can't keep going back to increase the garbage fee or other users fees. Putting the debt on a credit card will not help the city's structural problems."

When Faso said, "The city cannot balance its budget by itself," this prompted Milroy to point out, "The control board shines a light on a dilemma" but it doesn't offer solutions. "What good is a control board," he wondered. Buffalo Schools Superintendent Marion Canedo also faced BFSA members, who complained that she overwhelmed them with massive quantities of statistics. Richard Tobe said that he couldn't come to grips with the "big picture," due to being overwhelmed with multiple lines of numbers. She insisted that the plan that the school board submitted was a plan to achieve fiscal solvency, not to provide a quality education for Buffalo's school children.

On September 15, the BFSA rejected the city's entire plan, calling it unacceptable. Board President Thomas Baker termed the school districts plan a "nonstarter." "There is a structural gap all the way around," said BFSA Executive Director Dorothy Johnson. McCall said, "It's not the BFSA's responsibility to lobby for changes on the city's behalf. We should say that we acknowledge that change is needed."

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency failed to submit plans. "They are required to show how they would cut the deficit, not just acknowledge that they have a deficit," said Baker. Like Milroy, Alt Press, wonders what the BFSA seeks to accomplish. Questions about the authority's "hidden agenda" were raised by the hiring of Joseph Stefko as the authority's principal analyst. Stefko formerly worked for the Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research as a research associate. Among the many projects that the Center for Governmental Research produced was the 1997 analysis of the City of Buffalo's financial situation, titled "No Handout, No Bailout." In the acknowledgments, credit is given to the "vision and insight of City Comptroller Joel Giambra and his staff." Today, County Executive Joel Giambra sits on the BFSA.

According to an anonymous source, an update of the "No Handout, No Bailout" report is due to be released in October. Alt Press sees the timing of this report as interesting, but not a coincidence. The city is required to submit a revised four-year plan on the first of October. It will be either approved or denied at the authority's next meeting on October 7. The author of the "No Handout, No Bailout" report, the Center for Governmental Research, has experience with control boards. CGR also devised an action plan for the Troy Strategy Group. Troy was one of several localities in New York State for which a control board was appointed. New York City, Yonkers, and Nassau County all have had control boards.

Masiello, himself a member of the BFSA, appealed for assistance. "This system is broken. All of the upstate cities need help. We need a collective vision for tomorrow. Today's dreams ultimately become tomorrow's services and reforms."

It remains to be seen if the BFSA will be willing or able to provide that help and to be a part of a vision for Buffalo's future or if it will just be another signpost for Buffalo to follow on the road to economic ruin. by Alice E. Gerard

While watching the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Board in action, I am reminded of the old adage, warning about the ill effects that one is likely to suffer when watching sausages or laws being made.