Doomsday in Buffalo: Part II


by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice May 16th, 2002

Seven months ago I wrote about Buffalo’s doomsday scenario (see  Put simply, the end comes when Buffalo’s mayor, Tony Masiello, showing not the slightest inkling of leadership or imagination, mumbles “yassah” to his Republican masters while doling out a lethal dose of fiscal anthrax, in the form of untenable budget cuts, to Buffalo’s remaining residents. 

Seven months ago, this worse case scenario was looming on the horizon.  Today it’s reality.  The Mayor’s new budget cuts essential services below the minimum threshold necessary for the city to function.  It’s no longer a quality of life issue.  With severe cuts in police and fire services, it’s a death or life issue.  The Board of Education’s austerity budget denies Buffalo’s children their fundamental right to a basic quality education.  What the mayor doesn’t understand, but what time has certainly shown, is that ours is a mobile population.  Wreck their schools and cripple their essential services to the point of endangering their very welfare, and they’ll up and move a mile down the road, over the magic line and into suburbia.  Masiello’s absolute abolition of city cultural funding guarantees they won’t have any reason to look back.

Tony Kruger

There’s absolutely no thinking going on here.  Like a ghoul in a cheap horror flick, Masiello’s slashing everything in sight.  The more he cuts, the more people leave.  The more they leave, the less tax revenue we have, and the more we need to cut.  It’s an endless, but painfully simple, cycle. 

What’s going on here?  Why are our finances in such a mess?  There are structural reasons for Buffalo’s never-ending financial problems.  Put simply, we have a large metropolitan area artificially cut into smaller jurisdictions that don’t share resources. We provide all the services associated both with maintaining the metropolitan hub, and with servicing the region’s most impovished population and run-down infrastructure.  Yet, due to the state’s regressive property tax distribution system, we have no access to the bulk of the metro area’s tax revenues, since taxes are based on property values, and most of the metro area’s valuable properties are jurisdictionally severed from the city.  Until this inequity is addressed, Buffalo will always have budget problems.  This was the crux of my previous doomsday column.  This is not a poor region – just a poor city.

The situation is further complicated by state and federal policies and priorities.  In addition to paying property taxes (or rents that support property taxes), working New Yorkers also pay income tax.  This money is distributed by the state and is supposed to partially remedy the inequities caused by the property tax system and the lack of regional governments.  This equalization payment, pejoratively labeled by the media as a state “handout” or a “bailout,” allows Buffalo’s government to function and provide basic services – albeit at a level far below that enjoyed by suburban residents.  The state funding was never intended to allow Buffalo to provide service and educational parity with the suburbs.  One look at the instructional resources available in Buffalo’s schools makes that point painfully clear.  The core purpose of the state’s stopgap funding for Buffalo was simply to keep Buffalo from going critical – like a reactor experiencing a meltdown. 

Patacki’s Wacky Math

Now let’s fast-forward to the present time.  Governor George Pataki was elected and followed up on his campaign promise to cut state income taxes.  He did this, however, more like a butcher working on a corpse, than a doctor operating on a patient, without making any move to correct the structural inequities imposed on the state’s cities by our antiquated property tax system.  A state budget shortfall was inevitable and quite foreseeable.  Unexpected revenues generated by a booming stock market hid this structural problem for years and allowed status quo state fund transfers to continue.  Now, with the stock market falling back to earth, and with federal funds to rebuild New York City after 9-11 not fully materializing, New York is finally experiencing the tax-cut induced fiscal malaise it should have experienced a few years ago. 

With the state suffering fiscal shortfalls, something has to give.  The fund transfers to upstate cities were never regularized into the state budget – hence they could be eliminated without “cutting” the budget, since they were casually added to the budget every year, and were never quite in the budget, so to speak.  But make no qualms about it – the lack of state funds for Buffalo is a direct result of Pataki’s not fully thought out tax cuts.  It’s the D’uh factor again.

Let’s look beyond the state and examine the situation more holistically.  Buffalo is in desperate straits.  We can no longer provide basic fire and police services.  Our teachers are forced to teach in overcrowded resource-starved classrooms.  We’re forgoing infrastructure repair as our city crumbles.  If you were a time traveler from a generation past, landing in Buffalo today, you could only surmise that America had collapsed.  But that’s not the case.  Real life travelers who leave Buffalo experience culture shock when seeing the affluence other communities are experiencing.  America as a whole, though scarred with the pox of poverty, is anything but poor.

The Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush Era

The problem here is one of priorities.  During the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the very fabric of American society has been torn by the inequities associated with a growing disparity of wealth.  Buffalo is a victim of this culture of brute greed and winner-take-all selfishness.  Were firing police officers, firefighters and teachers, not to mention artists and social service providers.  Yet, the congress passed the largest military budget ever, with the largest percentage increase seen since the Vietnam debacle – an increase of $48 billion.  The federal budget shortfall will be exacerbated by a $33billion cut in taxes for energy companies such as Enron.  Coupled with a title wave of corporate welfare and a federal tax cut, skewed toward the rich, and about as well thought out as Pataki’s, there’re few federal funds left for cities such as Buffalo. 

If things weren’t bad enough, Bush Regime Attorney General John Ashcroft just made preliminary moves to fight gun control laws such as New York’s, as “unconstitutional.”  So, get this: The plan is for us to lay off cops while legalizing casual gun sales in a city where children can’t get a decent education.  Sound promising?  This is from an attorney general who was trounced in his last run for public office by a dead man.  That’s right – his opponent died before the election, but Missouri’s voter’s were so adamant that this madman not represent them, they voted for the dead guy.  We got him anyway – appointed by another guy who lost his election to a guy who acted like he was dead, only to appointed president by a posse of judges appointed for life by his dad and his cronies. But let’s get back to Masiello and the problem at hand.

From Argentina to Buffalo

Masiello is a Quisling – cut and dry.  Lunatic Republicans in Washington, and D’uh Republicans in Albany are calling the shots.  Masiello is just a poor poop boy reading from a script.  His government doesn’t lead.  It follows – orders, that is.  It’s Buffalo’s own little Vichy regime.  Perhaps I’m being a bit too tough on Tony.  I always felt that his heart was in the right place – he just lacked the intellect needed for this job.  His last round of budget cuts, however, threatens to destroy the city – and it doesn’t take a genius to see this.  But Tony’s dutifully executing them like a hangman without a peep of condemnation for the governor or his toxic fiscal regimen.  To the contrary, Masiello is a loyal supporter of the governor – and may one day retire into a position in the Pataki administration.  His current conflict is not with the state government, whose polices have brought us to the brink, but with our local public employee unions, as they resist the implementation of this doomsday budget.

Masiello’s budget is nothing new.  It offers no creativity or innovation.  It just cuts, cuts and cuts.  We’ve seen this before, over and over again.  The so called austerity that the state is imposing upon Buffalo smacks of the IMF and World Bank’s austerity programs fostered on debtor nations around the globe.  This blueprint hasn’t worked anywhere.  Rather than lead to fiscal health, it always leads to social mayhem.  People across the world have taken enough and are now fighting back.  Argentines recently dispensed with a slew of successive administrations (I lost count) over this issue until their leaders finally got the world – do the World Bank’s bidding by cutting essential services, and your administration will be out on the street.  Masiello, whose popularity is now sinking lower than his I.Q., seems oblivious to this message. Buffalo’s populace, for their part, are good gripers, but are still slow to take any concrete action.

Municipal Resistance

The key word here is action.  No municipal administration should acquiesce to their community’s destruction.  At this crucial point in time, Buffalo needs strong vigorous leadership to develop an innovative action plan.  We need a culture of municipal resistance!  This is where the mayor can make his mark.  He can either be the mayor that presided over the death of Buffalo – maybe even Buffalo’s last mayor as the city goes into permanent receivership.  Or he can be the first mayor in America to fight back. 

If we’re going to go down, at least we can go down fighting.  Imagine if Buffalo fought back.  Imagine a mayor who simply refused to gut our essential services.  Imagine a mayor who led thousands of Buffalonians on a motorcade to Washington DC to tell the Bushistas that we will not roll over and die while military contractors grow fat and rich.  Imagine a mayor who dared point the finger at the real causes of Buffalo’s fiscal malaise.  Imagine a mayor who could lead thousands of Buffalonians in the time-honored tradition of civil disobedience – perhaps blocking international trade routes and disrupting the money flow between Toronto and Wall Street for a day or two.  Imagine a mayor who could proudly say to the world, “We’re here, and we will not roll over and die.”  Imagine a mayor who dares to stand up against the policies in Albany and Washington that are killing us.  Imagine a mayor who could propel our case into the court of world opinion.  Imagine a mayor who stands as a model for other American mayors as they join in just saying no to the destruction of their own communities.  Imagine a mayor who can inspire a national urban culture of municipal resistance.  Imagine a mayor who can say, “Sure, we’re fucked – but we ain’t gonna go down without a fight!”  Imagine a mayor other than Tony Masiello. 

Dr, Michael I. Niman’s previous ArtVoice columns are archived at

Copyright 2002 Michael I. Niman.