Getting A Grip
Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice, November 22nd, 2001
So there we were – in the final stretch of the mayoral
race with incumbent Tony Masiello running blind all over the track kicking up
dust in all four lanes. Days
before the election we learned that the city was facing a catastrophic budget
shortfall incubated under Masiello’s watch.
With all eyes focused on the Mayor, he casually speculated that maybe it
wouldn’t be so bad if a state control board took over managing the city.
Is Masiello Incompetent?
Whoa. Was I
hearing hizzoner right? The
imposition of a state control board means that the city’s elected leadership
has been judged incompetent by the state government and is basically relieved of
duty. Yes, they get to stay in
their offices and collect their salaries as titular figureheads, but the
unelected state board takes over running the city.
For most thinking politicians, it’s a doomsday scenario. It means we lose our right to home rule because we elected
incompetent leaders. I’m not
throwing the term, “incompetent,” around lightly.
The state board does not show up with any new resources – just prudent
management skills which they use to try to fix problems and make cities work.
What was up? Was
Masiello throwing in the towel as he finished his final lap? Was he admitting incompetence?
Write-in candidate Judy Einach was making noise in the bleachers and
looking for her running shoes as Tony crashed through the finish line.
No one cheered as the judges awarded Masiello the rust medal.
And once again, Buffalo awoke from its election night slumber to a long
Slash & Burn Government
This one’s a doozy!
I won’t even chance at the numbers since no one can say with any
certainty exactly how far in the red Buffalo’s government is, but it’s in
the neighborhood of $100,000,000.00. That’s
a big fuck-up for a city of only 280,000 people.
City Hall’s solution is to slash, cry and blame others.
Fire teachers. Fire police. Fire
firefighters. Basically, fire a
suicidal shot to our own collective head. This
is unacceptable. Our schools are
already under staffed, under equipped and over burdened. Cutting almost 500 teachers will push them over the edge –
relegating them to little more than holding pens. The destruction of our school system will mean the end of our
city, as the last middle class tax payers flee to suburban school districts.
Fewer firefighters will mean people will die.
Fewer police officers, a mixed blessing, will also translate into more
deaths as overburdened cops fail to respond to emergency calls.
This might all come to pass. But, dammit, let’s not do this to ourselves.
Our elected leaders need to stand tall and bellow out a resounding NO!
We are not Quislings and we will not order the destruction of our own
Why We’re Broke
The fiscal problems facing our city stem from two distinct
causes. The first one is
structural. The core municipality
is bureaucratically cut off from its tax base.
Unlike fiscally healthy expanding cities such as Indianapolis, Toronto
and Ottawa, Buffalo’s taxpayers financed suburban expansion through road
building, then were cut off from tax revenues as outward bound residents crossed
imaginary lines out of “the city.” The
result is a sort of apartheid with city residents forced into under funded
schools as public services decline. Arbitrary
lines on a map, chopping up what is clearly one metropolitan area, into many
small segregated municipalities, are responsible both for the city’s
artificially imposed poverty as well as the artificially inflated wealth of the
Our second problem is that we are governed by a
Kleptocracy. The institutionally
sanctioned theft of our tax dollars is an accepted part of our local political
culture. We openly talk about
“patronage” and “patronage czars” and “Cronies.” We lost half of our population but still maintain the same
size payroll we did when we were a rich growing city. Part of this is real need.
A half empty city needs as strong of a firefighting force as a full city
since we’re more prone to burning up. Similar
arguments can be made regarding the size of our police force as Buffalo provides
housing for most of the County’s poorest people who are plagued by the violent
problems that are bred in poverty. These
problems are regional maladies concentrated with artificial boundaries and
should not be the sole responsibility of those people who have chosen to live in
neighborhoods designated as being in “the city.”
If we are going to make the argument for preserving
teaching, fire and police jobs, and argue that our suburban neighbors should pay
their fair share for maintaining our collective regional core, we need to clean
up our act. That means cutting the
size of city government by eliminating the fat that we can simply no longer
afford. The main focus of
Buffalo’s city government today is simply to perpetuate itself. It clearly has not been running the city with any degree of
competence. Our politicians are
warlords, each with a pathetic little army kept alive by patronage jobs and
mobilized at election time. Their
loyalties are regularly up for auction, with the police and fire unions often
buying them like used cars. Our
uniformed services departments are fiefdoms of their own, crippled by arcane
contracts with senior officers “earning” in the neighborhood of $100K per
year while street officers may be left without backup due to layoffs.
Our county government is richer, hence it’s worse.
Money that should be transferred to the city to pay for teachers and
firefighters is instead squandered by dynastic families.
We know their names and we see their kin returning to elective and
appointed office generation after generation.
Sometimes we elect them. Sometimes
we don’t, but they keep winding up in office, sucking at the public teat.
It’s too easy to name names and it’s unfair to focus only on select
individuals when the problem is endemic.
They haunt the halls of ECC and the Rath Building as their parents did
before them, carrying click pens and yellow pads as they attempt to “look
busy.” Under their incompetent
tutelage, our institutions are doomed to failure.
Each municipality in the county is besieged by a duplicate
set of parasites. They are dinosaurs and we can no longer afford them.
Politicians chanting the mantra of regionalism promised to rid us of
these costly little fiefdoms but have failed to deliver on their promises.
Our regionalism movie has done little more than provide a stage for
messianic megalomaniacs compulsively engaged in self aggrandizement.
How’s this for regionalism: Buffalo’s County taxes go up by almost 9% while the wealthy suburbs of Amherst, Clarence and Lancaster enjoy tax cuts. County Executive Joel Giambra argues that this fiscal anthrax is the unintended result of the County’s tax burden distribution formula. Well, listen up Joel. The formula is fucked. Raising taxes on what is one of the top ten poorest (per capita) cities in the country, to finance a tax cut for some of the state’s wealthiest fastest growing municipalities, is criminal. Local pundits are still enamored by Joel and his merry band of “Giabracrats.” Don’t fall for it. The fetid stench of this latest shift of the county tax burden provides a familiar stink. Make no bones about it – Giambra is a Republican.
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