The first thing to note about the City of Buffalo’s dwindling stash of unreserved funds is that City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder made a point of raising the issue.
When Schroeder became city comptroller in 2011, he had virtually none of the background that voters might hope for in the office of the city’s independently elected chief fiscal officer. The skeptics of the idea of a state assemblyman parachuting from Albany into an important job requiring a specific kind of background included this page.
Yet, Schroeder has done a creditable job as comptroller, not just monitoring the city’s balance sheet, but stepping in to push for reforms on towing policies that he identified as out of compliance with state law. Between his own devotion to the task at hand and that of his staff and some outside experts, Schroeder has done a good job, thus far.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an odd choice. Schroeder succeeded Andrew A. SanFilippo, who resigned to take a job in the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. SanFilippo was highly experienced, as was his deputy, Darby R. Fishkin, who ran the office while a successor was found. Schroeder developed that experience through his drive and connections.
Given the same set of circumstance again, we would still have preferred to see a comptroller who didn’t need on-the-job training. That only makes sense. But Schroeder has worked to allay concerns about his lack of expertise.
As to the city’s fast-disappearing surplus, it is unfortunate but, given the choices, not the worst of all possible problems. Mayor Byron W. Brown had wisely pledged not to raise property taxes, which was important given that the city was near its constitutional taxing limit. In fact, Brown reduced taxes. He also wanted to reclaim authority from the city control board and to establish a rainy day fund, among other goals.
He succeeded in those aims, but the price was to dig deeply into what three years ago was $40 million in unrestricted surplus funds. Just $12.2 million remains. The city’s own four-year financial plan anticipates using another $3.9 million from the unrestricted fund balance, leaving less than $9 million available.
The challenge ahead is to protect the city’s “A” category financial rating from the three credit-rating agencies, a score that the city achieved through the hard work of the mayor, the Common Council and the control board. But the city’s fast-shrinking pot of unreserved funds threatens that rating, which influences the interest rate the city pays when it borrows money.
Keeping the rating won’t be easy, given that a year remains on Brown’s pledge not to raise taxes. Still, that is the task that Brown and other city officials must accomplish as the mayor approaches this year’s re-election campaign.