Mayor Byron W. Brown takes the oath of office for a third term this morning and faces the next four years with money in the city’s coffers, a friendly Common Council majority and an experienced Cabinet.
But as the city experiences something of a building boom, with Planning Board agendas crammed with millions of dollars in new development every other week, it faces the persistent problems of poverty and a school district in turmoil.
“I’m quite sure there are a lot of people in the city who are doing very, very well; but the people we deal with every day, there’s a lot of struggle, a lot of pain,” said Larrone B. Williams, president of an East Side block club. “Those are some issues that should be on the front burner.”
While he was campaigning, Brown talked about his record and said broadly that current City Hall initiatives would continue, from demolition of problem structures to the use of crime surveillance cameras.
But on the eve of his third term as mayor, several key questions are unanswered:
• Will Brown become more involved in education?
• Can he keep city finances under control without raising taxes?
• Will big development projects or neighborhood concerns and the problem of poverty get attention from City Hall?
• Will he serve a full term?
Brown thus far has declined interview requests from The Buffalo News about his agenda for the next four years. But others have ideas about what the mayor should focus on.
As Brown’s campaign opponents talked about problems in the Buffalo Public Schools, the mayor repeatedly said his office has no authority over the district.
But while Brown’s public involvement in the district has been somewhat peripheral, that might be changing.
He is said to have been involved in the recent buyout offer made to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, serving as a liaison between the superintendent and the business leaders who want her to leave. His spokesman last week confirmed only that the mayor and the superintendent speak regularly and that “the mayor has many of the same concerns and frustrations as parents when it comes to our schools.”
But in conversations about any progress the city might be making in becoming a more attractive place to live – from improvements to parks to an emphasis on making neighborhoods more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians – the unspoken undercurrent is whether the city can be successful if the public school system, with failing schools and a high dropout rate, does not improve.
Education ‘very, very tough’
“The question becomes, whatever is going on, is there an opportunity to get more involved in the selection of the board members, the budget, the financing, the control?” said former Common Council president and mayoral candidate George K. Arthur.
“Education is a very, very tough area,” Arthur said. “It’s always been a problem for elected officials, even more so now.”
Arthur, a member of the city’s state-appointed financial control board, pointed to the district’s financial problems and its expired contracts with its two major unions as significant issues that must be dealt with.
Barbara Seals Nevergold, president of the Board of Education, said that Brown’s decisions to fund attendance teachers, restore instrumental music programs and appoint a deputy mayor, Ellen E. Grant, who meets regularly with school officials, show a greater involvement.
“I do see the mayor certainly being much more engaged, or more aware of the additional needs in the district and working with us to address those concerns,” Nevergold said.
Though Nevergold said the School Board is comfortable with the current relationship it has with the Mayor’s Office, there are others who want the city to play a more active role.
“I’d like to see the city much more involved in education,” Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen, a former School Board member who’s poised to become Council president in January, said, adding that he has no insight into what Brown is planning in the next term.
A significant part of Brown’s legacy will be that the city’s finances have been brought under control, though in no small part because of the control board, which went into advisory status last year. A year-end report from City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder shows that the city has more surplus funds than it has ever had: $165.8 million – $63.9 million of which is not designated for any purpose.
Brown has cut the tax rate over his tenure by 15 percent for residential properties and nearly 28 percent for commercial properties.
Pledge on taxes expiring
A pledge he made in 2011 not to raise taxes expires next year, and while the city’s four-year plan shows increases in the property tax levy in upcoming years, those figures were projected long before the city posted a record fund balance. That fund balance could temporarily prevent the need to raise assessments or the tax rate, if the city doesn’t use it up too quickly.
In addition to the continuing costs of health care and pensions, other major expenses could result from settling contracts with labor unions, six of which have expired. Only contracts with firefighters and crossing guards are current.
While construction projects on the waterfront and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus are well under way, others are just getting started, including a $225 million state investment at the old Republic Steel site in South Buffalo.
“New Buffalo really excites people,” said Council Majority Leader Demone A. Smith, of the Masten District, adding that hotel projects are slated to begin and that work is continuing to bring cars back to Main Street. “People see that. The next four years will be great.”
But while some might see reason to be excited, neighborhoods that are struggling with poverty are less hopeful. A November report by Open Buffalo, quoting statistics from the Partnership for the Public Good, found that in the city, 38 percent of African-Americans and 52 percent of Hispanics live in poverty.
“We’re hearing all these things about Buffalo being on the move, but in a lot of areas there is a lot of pain that still exists,” said Williams, president of the Glenwood-Kehr Block Club, which covers the neighborhood south of East Ferry Street and east of the Kensington Expressway. While downtown construction is creating jobs, Williams said, too many people can’t succeed in the workplace because they have dropped out of school. “We’re creating an underclass here,” he said. “It’s not going to be very good for the overall condition of this town.”
Other unfinished business includes the city’s Green Code, the first rewriting of the city’s zoning code in 60 years, which is still in development and has not been sent to the Council for review. And while some of the most applauded developments within city limits have been the reuse of historic structures, Preservation Board member Timothy Tielman said Brown’s preservation record has left much to be desired, starting with the lack of a paid City Hall staff person for the board who has a background in preservation education.
“It would be nice to have proactive preservation instead of the feeling that we have to struggle with the administration to get things done,” Tielman said.
A place on Cuomo ticket?
While all of those issues await the mayor, whether he will complete all four years of his term is a frequent topic of conversation around City Hall, though Brown himself has not spoken publicly about it.
Brown, 55, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, should Duffy not run with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2014.
There are mixed opinions about whether Cuomo would offer Brown a spot on the ticket if Duffy steps down, and whether Brown would take it.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised” if Brown took such an offer, said Arthur, who hired Brown to work in his Council office in the mid-1980s.
“I think you always keep your avenues open.”