Getting A Grip

Doomsday in Buffalo

by 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 painful hangover.

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 city.

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 suburbs. 

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.” 

Buffalo’s Warlords

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.

Fiscal Anthrax

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.   

  Stand Tall or Get Our of the Way!

  Our elected leaders need to respond to the current crisis first by cleaning house, then by raising hell.  First they should cut the fat.  Then they need to scream from the highest hill.  If Buffalo is going to die, that death will have to be forced upon us.  We will not be the hangmen at our own execution.  City leaders need to refuse to cut any essential teachers, firefighters or police officers.  Period.  If we crash and burn, if we go bankrupt, if the state imposes a control board, so be it.  We didn’t do this to ourselves.  The only way we can wage this fight is if we first clean up our own house and capture the moral high ground.  If the state imposes teacher, police and firefighter layoffs, our elected leaders need to lead the fight into the streets.  We will not die quietly.  The state will have to explain why we in Buffalo don’t deserve the same basic services that our suburban neighbors take for granted.  

Dr. Michael I. Niman usually writes about national politics, but as a Buffalo city taxpayer, he’s really pissed off this week.  His recent stories about the “War on Terrorism” are archived at .

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