Planning to spend money you don’t have

An “Another Voice” article in a recent edition of the Buffalo News poses a serious, important and often overlooked view about the grand scheme of public issues: what is being proposed would be great, but where would the money come from?

The subject in question is the proposal from local thinker Kevin Gaughan to redevelop the Delaware Park Golf Course, relocate the golf course in South Park and restore the South Park Arboretum. Both parks were part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s grand design for an inter-connected park system in Buffalo.

Neither of the parks look like what Olmstead envisioned in the nineteenth century.  Both parks undoubtedly could use some improvements. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy is focused on that.

Gaughan’s regionalism efforts in the nineties did not lead to anything significant. His local government downsizing efforts, particularly when he suggested in some cases going down to three member legislative bodies, saved little money but added political confusion and potential ethical issues for the local governments that signed up. A past blog post noted those issues in the Town of Hamburg, which subsequently decided to go back to a five member town board.

The Gaughan proposal for the parks promotes the idea that Jack Nicklaus’ golf course design firm would come to town, at cost, and redesign the two golf courses. That’s all great except for the fact that someone has come up with a number for the total cost of the projects — $42 million.

The “Another Voice” article, written by Anne Harding Joyce, former chairwoman of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, outlines how she views Gaughan’s park plans. The emphasis in the following excerpt from the article is mine.

As a member of the Long-Range Planning Committee of the conservancy, I was present at the meeting with Gaughan and the representatives of Nicklaus Golf last fall. Everyone present was cautiously optimistic about the possibilities – they are all pieces of the conservancy’s master plan…

At that meeting last fall, Gaughan was informed by the conservancy that there was absolutely no money – zero – available for it to pursue this project and that the conservancy was not in a financial position to jeopardize the current local funding streams that allow it to do its primary job – maintain and protect Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks and Parkways.

Gaughan unequivocally stated that he would raise the entire amount needed to complete the project from sources outside of Western New York. It appears that Gaughan has begun a public campaign to make it look as if the conservancy has stalled the development of these projects by refusing to identify local funding sources. This is absurd.

I would suggest that Gaughan show the conservancy his financial commitments and then perhaps the conservancy would have more confidence that he is holding up his end of the original conversation.

Kevin Gaughan is a very bright and articulate advocate for the projects he promotes.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Kevin, but $42 million doesn’t grow on trees.

He claims to be able to raise that amount of money from out-of-town interests. History plus observations about how the world works show that proposition to be silly. Why would out-of-town interests want to provide millions of dollars to re-design a couple small golf courses in Buffalo? In the meantime local cultural organizations are already in the hunt for millions of dollars in capital funds for their particular projects.

The lack of reality about funding options for noteworthy projects that have been discussed in Western New York shows that Gaughan’s park plan is similar to other grandiose ideas. That doesn’t mean that any of them make sense. They include:

  • The expansion of NFTA’s Metrorail line into Amherst up to the University of Buffalo’s North Campus, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion for construction and countless millions more for the expanded operating costs of the line. The state has committed $5 million to studying this idea. The line would extend the system an additional six-plus miles, with half of the stops on the UB campus. Great for UB! The construction money would proposedly come from the federal government (which has no plans for any substantial infrastructure work); the state government (that has already provided the Buffalo Billion); and the county and town governments (that are not about to get out their checkbooks for this).
  • The capping and landscaping of a small portion of the Kensington Expressway in an attempt to restore some of the lost ambiance of the neighborhood that was destroyed when the Expressway was built. The state has already spent money on preliminary environmental/design/engineering work on this idea, which is seen as costing $170 million. Repeat here the comments in the first bullet point about where the money would come from.

I guess it is my life experiences that include county budget director and member of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority that lead me to a scrooge-like view of the proposed public works projects noted here. All of them, in and of themselves, are exciting and could improve the area in various ways. But where does the money come from? Does it make sense to spend time and money studying things that rational and realistic planners would conclude are never going to happen?

If someone drives around the City of Buffalo and the first-ring suburbs it is easy to identify many very ordinary but very important needs for public money. Think Main Street in Buffalo and Maple Road in Amherst, both of which are badly in need of repair. Think taking down the Skyway and improving access to the outer harbor with a ground-level bridge. Add community facilities of all sorts. These are projects that already sit on drawing boards somewhere, with nowhere near the amount of money that would be needed to complete these very mundane public works. If any of the above noted big projects were to move along the ordinary day-to-day infrastructure necessities would fall further down the list of funding priorities.

This community has made some great strides in re-orienting the job mix in the area and in developing great facilities such as Canalside, but only by being realistic will that progress continue. Think big, but think clearly.

2 thoughts on “Planning to spend money you don’t have

  1. Omg, Ken, you hit the nail on the head with that one. Kevin Gaughan and money are anethema. Ridiculous. Thanks for the post.

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