We have a plan for that

Welcome to July. The weather finally feels like summer. There is a holiday coming up. They say there will be baseball games on television before the end of the month. The calendar moves on.

June 30 was the last day of the City of Buffalo’s 2019-2020 fiscal year. It was rocky. July 1 is the first day of the City of Buffalo’s new fiscal year. It is going to be rocky.
Mayor Byron Brown on May 1 proposed a budget for the next fiscal year. With some reluctance the Common Council by a six to three vote last month approved the budget. Council members expressed concerns about some of what that document contained.

While all government budgets have problems with the expense side of the ledger, Buffalo’s financial difficulties have been rooted more on the revenue side of the picture. The problems are big and they have been ongoing for several years.

Recent city budgets have contained tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue that can best be described as creative. There have been millions in fees that have never been enacted such as an entertainment surcharge/tax; proceeds from city property sales far in excess of what could reasonably be expected to materialize; income from fines that is unattainable; exaggerated casino payments; and other assorted overestimations of revenues.

Over the past several years, ending in 2018, the city exhausted all of its reserves except for its “rainy day fund” that amounts to approximately $39 million. It’s pouring now. Nay, there’s a monsoon now. The “break glass” use of the rainy day fund is coming soon.

In the fiscal year just ended Buffalo found it necessary to borrow 18 million dollars to fill a budget gap that included the recurring problem of overestimated revenues as well as the fiscal shocks of the pandemic. The city incurred additional pandemic-related expenses while the city’s share of the county sales tax diminished, parking collections dropped, and traffic fines went down.

City Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams announced in late April that the city had a $35 million cash deficit and was in danger of not having enough money to make payroll. Not to worry, the Brown administration announced, we have a plan for that. They simply used a joint city-school district bank account that is managed by the City Comptroller’s Office to make up the shortfall. Then, the Brown plan went on, when the city government received its regular payment from the State of New York in June the money would be returned.

At about the same time Governor Andrew Cuomo was warning local governments that shortfalls in state revenues would partly be made up by reductions in money provided to the localities. That possibility does not seem to have been factored into the city’s plan for repaying the joint city-school system account.

To bring the 2019-2020 budget gap filling story up-to-date, the Cuomo administration announced last week that they would not be sending certain money to municipalities because of the state’s own budget hole. There was no indication about when or in what amounts those funds might be forthcoming. For Buffalo the delayed or lost revenue could be up to $20 million. That would be the same money that the city intended to use to repay the joint city-school district bank account for the money the city used in May. A plan to repay that money remains to be seen.

To fill a projected budget gap for 2019-2020 the Common Council approved the borrowing of $18 million, but that does not account for the temporary or permanent loss of up to $20 million in state aid that the city expected to receive last month.

On to the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The approved 2020-2021 city budget revenues includes $65.1 million in “federal disaster relief,” something that at the moment has no basis in law, and $11 million in revenues from the Buffalo Creek Casino, which has just re-opened in a limited operational mode. $76.1 million is more than 14 percent of the city’s total budget, so if any substantial portion of those millions is not forthcoming the city will be left with a big new hole to fill in a new fiscal year that is now underway. In budget-speak, the city now has a structurally unbalanced budget where operating revenues do not match operating expenses.

But the city administration, according to spokesman Mike DeGeorge, has a plan for that too. He texted the Buffalo News to say: “When the federal government provides adequate, direct and flexible aid to state and local governments, the state will disburse the withheld AIM funding to Buffalo and the other cities. In the interim, the City of Buffalo has a plan in place to cover any deficit or gap that may arise as a result of this action.”

Whatever exactly is included in the administration’s plan to “cover any deficit or gap” appears to be as closely guarded as Colonel Sanders’ secret blend of 11 herbs and spices for the chicken he serves. When the city budget was adopted in late June Council members reported they had no information on what is included in the budget gap closing plan. Meanwhile other governments, including the County of Erie, have already approved plans for budget cutting if federal government relief is not forthcoming.

Elizabeth Warren had all sorts of publicly detailed plans for moving the country forward. On the other hand, Richard Nixon, during the 1968 presidential campaign, had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. For the moment anyway, the Brown administration’s plan for paying off borrowed money and for filling a hole in their new budget seems more Nixon-like than Warren-like.

The city’s secret plan, whatever it is, will get harder to implement with each day that passes in the new fiscal year.  Did I mention that there is a Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority that could legally step in to bring some order to the impending chaos?

So what happens now?

The expression “it’s all over but the shouting” never had more meaning than Wednesday morning following the congressional doubleheader in NY27.

Nine days of early voting and the in-person turnout on Election Day produced relatively low totals. Literally tens of thousands of absentee votes, an unprecedented number, remain to be counted. Even while awaiting official totals which are about two weeks away, however, it is pretty clear that Jacobs’ in-person vote margins of victory in both the special election and the primary cannot be overcome with the available absentee votes that will be split among the candidates. Chris Jacobs has won both the special congressional election in NY27 and the Republican primary for nomination to the same seat in November.

This blogger thought that while Republicans would gravitate to Jacobs in the special election to keep the seat Republican, there was at least the possibility of an upset in the Republican primary with Beth Parlato’s hard charging challenge to Jacobs. It turned out that her over-the-top television advertising campaign may have brought her campaign down — or maybe it was simply a badly run campaign.

The first ads that Parlato ran, with actors sarcastically going after Jacobs on taxes and his previously moderate Republican positions, may have had some impact. But after the brouhaha about Jacobs voting residence played out last week and it became known that she had instigated the matter, she persisted in running an ad that suggested that Jacobs might be a future felon, headed to jail. The ad ran right through Election Day. Bad judgment.

While there were an unprecedented number of absentee ballots returned in the elections, the voting statistics show that Republicans were less inclined than Democrats to vote absentee; the Reps turned out in larger numbers on Tuesday. People going to vote in person had the opportunity to absorb and assess that Parlato had the story about Jacobs’ voting residence either wrong or twisted.

In the special election Democrat Nate McMurray seemed to be waiting for Parlato to help take down Jacobs. There were dozens of McMurray Tweets, but hardly an ad until near the end of the campaign. Political people are fond of saying “signs don’t vote” while assessing the number of signs on lawns. This campaign might add a new truism, “Tweets don’t vote.” Tweets are an inside baseball sort of thing.

We will now wait until July 14 or later to get the official results in NY27, but it’s all over but the shouting.

Jacobs and McMurray will re-litigate things over the next four plus months but McMurray has an awfully high hill to climb to November. NY27 is overwhelming Republican by affiliation; Trump is still popular there; and McMurray’s liberal politics will be difficult to sell. He ran a close race in 2018 against the indicted Chris Collins, but Jacobs is not Collins.

There are also some things that will need to be tidied up with the other two contestants in the Republican primary, Parlato and Stefan Mychajliw.

Parlato at the moment remains the Conservative Party candidate for Congress in the November election. She previously indicated that she would abandon that nomination to allow the party to substitute Jacobs on the ballot. As a lawyer Parlato can decline the nomination in order to run for a judgeship, albeit this will be for a race that she will not compete in actively and will have no chance of winning. The State Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Conventions will be held between August 6th and 12th. Parlato will carry the Conservative banner in the non-conservative hinterlands of Manhattan or the Bronx.

Mychajliw remains Erie County Comptroller for a term that ends in a year and a half. His problem is all the burning bridges that he left behind with Erie County Republicans when he first declined to run for County Executive against Mark Poloncarz last year and then pursued an underfunded and anemic effort in the Republican congressional primary.

In the course of pursuing the congressional seat Mychajliw aggressively attacked the Republican establishment. Will they abandon him when it comes time for re-election or might he just walk away from the office? And while I’m asking questions, close observers in the Southtowns report that during the recent primary there was no Stefan Mychajliw for Congress sign on Lynne Dixon’ property in Hamburg. Why didn’t Mychajliw appointee Dixon have a sign on her lawn?

On to November.

Watching the millionaires fight the billionaires

As the country works its way through the COVID-19 pandemic and the re-opening of the economy we are all looking for a return to some degree of normalcy. We look for the distractions we enjoy for some relief. We might want to take a chance by going to a restaurant. Many would love to watch a baseball game or the championship finals of the NBA and the NHL.

The restaurants have in fact become an option. Watching sports? Not yet.

My wife Sophia and I had the opportunity to see a spring training baseball game in Florida during the last week in February – the Washington Nationals versus the Houston Astros, a reprise of the World Series. We didn’t know then, of course, but that game might have been one of the last baseball games played in 2020.

It is just amazing now to watch the billionaires who own professional sports team fight with the millionaires who play the games. The coronavirus is still growing like wild fire in certain parts of the country and could come back for an encore in the fall. But those involved in the pursuit of the almighty dollar in professional sports have not figured out a way to bring back their sports without endangering players, team staffs and fans.

Major League Baseball (MLB), the NBA, the NFL and the NHL are all twisting themselves into pretzels trying to start their season (MLB), complete their seasons (NBA and NHL), or get ready to start their new season (NFL). In all cases, plus the WNBA, the leagues and teams are attempting to figure out how they can isolate their players and staff from the COVID-19, prepare for frequent testing of all involved, and if required, quarantine their personnel when they do contract the coronavirus.

MLB’s normal regular season consists of 162 games per team followed by a month of playoffs and the World Series. Since spring training facilities were shut down in March in Arizona and Florida the league has channeled through multiple options for a second spring training followed by a regular season ranging from 50 to 80 games, followed by the post-season. The discussions have included isolating all teams in Arizona or maybe playing the entire season by realigning the teams geographically for 2020 to minimize travel.

It seems a forgone conclusion that the games will be played without fans in the stands. That means a huge drop in revenues. The back-and-forth negotiations between the owners and the players’ union revolve around money – how much or how little the players would be paid; how much or how little the owners will take in. No normal unemployment insurance income for these folks!

The NBA is still working on a season resumption plan that would involve 22 of the 30 teams at Disneyworld in Florida, where they would all live and play all their remaining regular season and playoff games. The WNBA is looking to do something similar for their entire, abbreviated season. The basketball games would be played without fans.

The NHL is looking to locate 24 of their 31 teams in two cities that remain to be determined to operate in a playoff format. Things are a bit more complicated for the NHL since nearly a quarter of their teams are based in Canada and there remains a travel ban between the two countries, at least through July 21. The games would also be played without fans.

The NFL seems to think that maybe the virus will blow over by the fall, even while many scientists believe that fall will kick off a second wave of coronavirus. The league has been less specific than the other leagues about an alternative and shortened season. The powers that be in the league seem to think they can run training camps in August and go about their regular season and playoffs as scheduled. The league also is headed for an arrangement that would somehow limit, but not eliminate, the number of fans in the stands.

It should also be noted that college football and basketball 2020 seasons are also endangered by the public health and logistical nightmares of trying to arrange for training and playing games. There is a lot of money involved in college sports too.

All of the possible plans of all the leagues revolve around a simple premise: we want our money. They are prepared to overlook the possibility that an infection, or two, or ten by the personnel or game day employees might upend their season plans. You might recall that professional sports’ cascading cancellations started when one member of the Utah Jazz basketball team contracted the virus in March.

Most recently the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies suspended their restarted spring training camps in Florida when several players tested positive for COVID-19. Reportedly more than 20 members of the Clemson University football team recently tested positive.

It is not just team personnel that present a potential problem for team owners. Even in some sort of team isolation arrangement the kitchen staffs who serve food to players; the guy who drives the team bus; the staff that cleans their hotel rooms will not be isolated. Those essential workers will come and go to their homes and elsewhere, potentially exposing themselves to the virus. Did I mention that Florida, where much of the projected game playing is proposed, is having a bit of a problem with COVID-19 at the moment?

A whole lot of people including this humble blogger are anxiously awaiting the start of play for the professional leagues. But there are many, many complications that can and will intervene.

The professional sports teams should deal with the fact that they are in the same boat as your favorite restaurant, barbershop or salon that have been ravished by the economic shutdowns (except that there is a whole lot more money involved in sports). The sports teams also have to overcome the reality that a large majority of Americans won’t go anywhere near a sports facility packed with people for the foreseeable future, no matter what precautions the teams might try to promote. Just ask the million people who recently attended the Trump rally in Tulsa about such things.

When all is said and done 2020 and perhaps at least part of 2021 will be a period in our history when there were no sports to watch. Contrary to what Donald Trump thinks, Dr. Anthony Fauci has a better read on these things than does the alleged billionaire in the White House.

I wonder what wannabe Buffalo Bills owner Donald Trump would be saying about this. Okay, that’s obvious, he would be groveling for games and fans in the stands to line his pockets, like many of his team-owning pals are already doing.

Sports will return just like before. Patience is hard but it is needed at the moment. Go Bills!

My email for this post was titled “Other Stuff and Politics.” So here is a political tidbit.
There will be two judicial positions on the November ballot in Erie County – one open seat on the State Supreme Court plus the Erie County Judge position held by Kenneth Case.

Case is running without opposition. For the Supreme Court seat Democrats are expected to select City Court Judge Amy Martoche while the Republicans go with Gerald Greenan, who lost a bid for the Court last year. The party Judicial Conventions to officially select their candidates will be held between August 6th and 12th.

The Bar Association of Erie County has announced their ratings of the candidates. Case is rated “Outstanding” while Martoche is rated “Well Qualified.” Greenan is rated “Not Recommended.”

Niagara County will also elect a County Judge. There is a primary today to select the party candidates. With lots of absentee ballots to count, the results will not be known until next week at the earliest.

Mail-in voting is making it easier to participate; increased interest could affect the outcomes in NY27

New Yorkers have had a major new opportunity presented to them in 2020 to honor their civic duty. Voting has gotten much easier, and voters in large numbers are taking advantage of their new options.

The first test of the new arrangement has been in the recently completed school district elections outside of the City of Buffalo. All eligible voters in the 2020 district elections were mailed ballots allowing them to vote yea or nay on their districts’ budgets and borrowings. Candidates for school boards were also elected by mail-in balloting. Continue reading

The rumble in NY27

The doubleheader in NY27 will be over in a few days. It cannot happen soon enough.

The indictment, re-election, conviction and resignation of Chris Collins, former member of the House of Representatives from the 27th District in New York, spanned 14 months. The process for getting new representation for the district has gone on for eight months.

It will end on June 23rd when voters will choose between Democrat Nate McMurray and Republican Chris Jacobs for the right to occupy the seat through the end of 2020. Simultaneously Republican voters will select a candidate for the November general election for the seat from among Jacobs, Stefan Mychajliw and Beth Parlato. McMurray has no primary and will be on the November ballot. Continue reading

“Strive for five” is looking less likely in Buffalo City Hall; the impact of mail voting

“These are the times that try men’s souls…” Thomas Paine, December 1776
And women’s souls too.

And thus we find ourselves in 2020, in troubling times. The confluence of a pandemic, a major economic recession and turbulent days and weeks throughout the land make most everyone do their own assessment of where they stand; where the community they live in stands; and where the nation stands. Continue reading