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Fontana chastises control board on spending

The City of Buffalo's top lawmaker took aim Wednesday at the costs of running a state-appointed financial control board, one that appears to be heading toward advisory status.

Common Council President Richard A. Fontana said he wants the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority to lower its operating costs, as a move from "hard" to "soft" mode is on the horizon.

"We can't just do nothing and let them spend $800,000 a year and let it be a jobs program for the next 24 years," Fontana said during a budget hearing in City Hall.

It turns out, Fontana understated the costs of running the control board.

Its budget for this fiscal year is actually about $903,000.

More than half of the costs are staff-related, with $544,282 allocated for salaries and benefits for five staff positions.

Last year, the control board spent a total of about $808,000, including $455,000 on staff expenses.

Fontana said he believes the control board "could easily trim some jobs," and lower costs should happen once the powers of the board change.

Under state law, the control board will exist in some form until June 30, 2037. Any change to that would require an amendment to the law.

The control board retains the ability to shift back to "hard" status after it moves into advisory mode.

A potential move to advisory status has been part of the thinking when budgeting for staff positions at the control board over the past several years, said Bryce E. Link, a control board analyst.

The board did not fill two positions that were vacated, Link said, including a deputy executive director and a chief financial officer.

Discretionary spending, which covered items like staff training and office supplies, was also cut by about 25 percent in the last couple of years, Link said.

Existing staff at the control board consists of an executive director, a comptroller, a principal analyst, a financial analyst and an administrative assistant.

In his remarks during a budget hearing on the spending plan for the City Comptroller's Office, Fontana also suggested the control board move its offices from the Market Arcade building into City Hall, where he said there is more than enough space.

But the control board believes the separate space is part of what allows it to retain its independence, Link said.

The rent it pays -- more than $40,000 a year -- also goes into the coffers of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, a city entity, because it's a city-owned building, Link said.

In a written statement late Wednesday, control board Chairman R. Nils Olsen Jr. said the organization was "disappointed" with Fontana's comments.

"The BFSA has worked effectively and collaboratively with the city, district and other covered entities throughout the years towards the same collective goal of strengthening their finances," Olsen said. "The authority, through its direct actions, has assured savings to the city and district in excess of $200 million, including most significantly, savings realized from the wage freeze."

"It is clear that the authority has been effective and will continue to work diligently on behalf of city residents," continued Olsen, who added the control board looks forward to "continuing our important work."

The control board's shift to advisory status took another step last week, when State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder jointly filed paperwork with the control board.

They certified the city has borrowed money on its own and has the ability to do so in such a way that would cover its capital and cash flow needs.