Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed 2023-2024 City Budget demonstrates a new reality: Buffalo must deal with financial issues head-on. Past budgets have relied on if-come revenues from new city sources, exaggerated estimates of established funding streams, and new money from other levels of government to cover the city’s expenses. With a proposed increase in property taxes and higher fees for sanitation services, city government is coming to see that its financial future requires taking ownership of their problems.
No one likes to see their taxes go up. It is true that there is substantial poverty in Buffalo. It also is true that city property taxes are the lowest in the region. City property taxes, unlike in the towns and cities in the areas outside of Buffalo, include the city government’s $70.8 million contribution to the operations of the Buffalo School System rather than a separate levy for the school district. City government has not increased its funding for the school system in many years. More than 80 percent of Buffalo school district revenues come from the state.
The Mayor has proposed a 3.83 percent increase in property taxes and an 8 percent increase in sanitation fees for residential properties, the latter move planned to allow fees to match actual expenses. Fire and snow removal vehicles are being added and improvements will be made to city parks.
The revenue increases are needed to allow the city to get closer to having current revenues paying for current expenses, which is the targeted standard for a government that is operating in a fiscally sound manner. The increases in 2023-2024 will need to be followed by additional increases in the following years to steady the ship.
Not a part of the budget but coming at what might be considered an incredibly inopportune time, the City’s Citizens Salary Review Commission has proposed substantial pay raises (12.63 percent) for the mayor, comptroller, councilmembers, and school board members. They all saw substantial raises in 2019.
There is some opposition to the raises, but it doesn’t appear that there are enough “no” votes at this time to eliminate or reduce the proposed increases. Challengers in the Council primaries are highly likely to fight the increases, but four of the nine councilmembers have no election opposition and have therefor, in effect, already been elected. Two others are lame ducks who do not necessarily need to pay attention to what the voters might say.
There is some irony in the fact that Brown in 2021 criticized his mayoral opponent, India Walton, for proposing up to a three percent increase in property taxes. During that campaign Brown incorrectly claimed that a three percent increase in property taxes would cost a taxpayer an additional $300 for a home valued at $100,000. The Message from the Mayor introducing his 2023-2024 budget reports that the 3.83 percent increase in the property tax levy would increase the cost of that $100,000 home by just $46.
This year Walton is a candidate for the Masten District Council seat. What might she or the other challengers in the other four districts say? It will be interesting to see how the budget and pay raise issues play out in the Council campaigns.
OTB’s new Board
Tucked in a budget bill known in Albany as the “big ugly” is legislation that will significantly change the structure and management of the Western Regional Off-Track-Betting Corporation (OTB). It’s been a long time coming.
Created 50 years ago to reduce illegal horse race betting and to distribute funds to its member counties and cities, OTB has gone off in various directions. Betting parlors were created through the 15-county region. Over time the Corporation set up online betting, bought a racetrack, opened a casino, and purchased a hotel adjacent to the racetrack. Interest in horse betting has declined and many parlors have closed; those remaining all lose money – money that could be distributed to its members.
What has really done in OTB as much as anything has been its poor management. Not only does the organization continue to employ people and pay operating expenses in betting parlors that lose money, but it has allowed its high-ranking staff and board members to be highly compensated and treated to perks that don’t usually come to people associated with a public corporation. Investigations by the State Comptroller’s Office, the FBI and more recently the Erie County Comptroller’s Office have exposed some of those dealings. OTB management and Board leadership have defiantly fought not only the suggested reforms but even the provision of information about how they operate. My February 21, 2023, blog post highlighted the issues. Off-Track Betting in Western New York is off track | Politics and Other Stuff (politicsandstuff.com)
The new state legislation, which has been pushed by Senator Tim Kennedy and Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, immediately terminates the current 17 member OTB Board, where each member had an equal vote regardless of its population or customer base for the system. In its place there still will be 17 members, but the voting strength of the members will be proportional to their population. Erie County will have 24 votes; Buffalo will have 10; Monroe County will have 20; Rochester will have 8; Niagara County will have 8. The remaining 12 counties collectively will have 30 votes. Whoever is selected as Chair will have one extra vote. In counties with county executives those officers rather than the legislatures will now select their counties’ representatives. Mayors will appoint the representatives in Buffalo and Rochester.
There has been some complaining from the rural counties that will have diminished control over the Corporation. They will likely lose some patronage and the perks their Board members have been receiving. Evidently those folks are not familiar with such concepts as proportional representation and one-person-one-vote.
The new OTB has a lot of work to do once it gets its new board members in place, but their agenda has been laid out for them by the investigators who have exposed the many operational problems of the organization. As the announcer says at the harness track when the horses reach the starting line, “and they’re off!”