State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s positive report on the City of Buffalo’s finances results from the combination of good work by the mayor, oversight by the control board and a healthy dose of state aid.
The Brown administration gets credit for returning the city from the fiscal wilderness. Byron W. Brown moved in to City Hall just as the state control board took over while the city was near its constitutional taxing limit.
Helped by a control board that froze wages, Brown and his staff were able to institute their own progressive fiscal policies. The result is that Buffalo has fared better than other comparable cities, and has weathered the worst recession since the Great Depression.
The city’s credit ratings from all three rating agencies – Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s – reached high levels. At the same time, Buffalo is benefiting from more than $2.2 billion in construction, including the $172 million privately financed HarborCenter and the $375 million University at Buffalo School of Medicine. Over the past decade, Buffalo’s revenues have grown 20 percent to $447 million in 2012.
As DiNapoli said, “Buffalo’s finances are trending in the right direction.” The comptroller praised the mayor and control board, which under Brown’s administration is down to advisory status, but not all is rosy. DiNapoli raised a number of red flags, cautionary notes that echo concerns raised by the control board.
While the Brown administration was able to negotiate a new firefighter contract, it still has not reached an agreement with the police union. That fiscal uncertainty could bring new pressure to the city budget.
Brown’s administration remains weighed down by a dependent city school district that is facing a $35 million budget gap this year. Even though the district gets part of its funding from the city, it unfortunately was not part of the comptroller’s report.
DiNapoli also noted the demographic challenges facing one of the poorest big cities in the nation. Property values grew at less than half the rate of other cities in the state between 2002 and 2013, the population continues to decline, the city has relatively low housing values and childhood poverty is pervasive.
Improving education to better prepare residents for jobs should improve the city’s outlook. Brown can play a role in helping to create better schools, and lately he seems to be embracing the opportunity.
The city has risen far since the depths of its fiscal crisis. While there’s still a long way to go, the progress so far is worth celebrating.