Buffalo is facing big bills - The Buffalo News
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Buffalo is facing big bills

The bill is about to become due for City Hall’s chronic failure to maintain and update many of the 240 buildings and 2,180 acres of parks it owns.

Consultants two years ago gave Mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration an estimate of $607 million to bring those buildings and parks up to snuff over the coming decade, and said that $253 million of that work ought to get done right away. The bill for leaky roofs alone stretched into eight figures.

The bill is about to come due for Buffalo’s disinvestment, and it’s got a lot of zeros in it.

Administration officials have kept the estimates under wraps, insisting they are too high. They were scheduled to meet Friday with the Boston-based firm that inventoried the city’s holdings and estimated the cost of necessary repairs and upgrades.

Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said he’s hoping to finalize the cost estimates shortly, which he expects to be “drastically” lower than the $607 million estimated by VFA Inc.

Regardless, the tally will total hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s going to be expensive,” Stepniak said.

The cost poses a major challenge for City Hall, given its chronic inability to spend even the modest amount of money it earmarks for capital improvements in a timely fashion.

How chronic? City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder said he found instances of capital funds sitting in accounts for 15 years when he took office in 2012. The mayor and Common Council of late have approved an average of about $22 million a year in capital projects, but the administration has managed to typically spend only about $15 million.

Schroeder shudders to think about the prospect of a much more ambitious capital spending plan given the current state of affairs.

“It can’t be done,” he said, “unless this comprehensive facility assessment really tells exactly how it could be done, and then you have to have the personnel, which there are very nice people in this building, but my two and a half years here, I just don’t know if they would be able to execute a project like that.”

Estimates not shared

The city in 2011 hired VFA to conduct the study. The work was paid for with grants and the proceeds of a bond sale. The cost, including interest, will total $1.3 million.

The study identified maintenance required through 2022 by determining how many “remaining life years” a specific item or system has left and estimating replacement costs. The study also identified short-term repairs and code violations.

The assessment found a lot of buildings are outdated or in need of repair. Roofs leak. Heating or air conditioning units malfunction. Plumbing leaks or simply doesn’t work.

The study also found numerous examples of facilities that lack basic safety features, such as smoke detectors and fire proofing, or that fail to comply with building codes and handicapped accessibility laws.

In short, Buffalo owns a lot of weather-beaten properties.

“Buildings have been neglected,” said Art Robinson, a member of the Citizen’s Planning Council for Capital Budget. “There’s such a need out there and it’s got to be addressed.”

The administration has not shared the information, going so far as denying several requests from Schroeder’s staff to review the data.

Stepniak said the administration isn’t trying to hide anything. Rather, he said, the administration felt the cost estimates were high and wanted to revise the numbers before releasing them.

Two years later, the numbers have not yet been finalized, but Stepniak said city officials were scheduled to meet late last week with representatives from VFA to review the estimates and hopefully agree on numbers. Investigative Post obtained a spreadsheet produced by VFA that detailed its analysis, project by project.

Needs are widespread

The analysis shows that buildings that house government operations are in particular need of work. City Hall requires up to $180.2 million in work; City Court, up to $38.8 million; and Police Headquarters, $24 million.

Extensive capital improvements are required for a host of other facilities that are used by the public, both city and suburban residents.

The Niagara Branch Library on Porter Avenue needs $2.8 million in work, according to the study. The elevator has never worked, library officials said, nor are restrooms handicapped accessible. In short, the library isn’t inviting to the disabled.

Dudley Library on South Park Avenue has problems, as well – $1.6 million worth, according to the study.

“We need to replace the roof because the roof leaks, and the HVAC system is, if it’s not original, it’s extremely old and not functional,” said Kenneth H. Stone, chief financial officer of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

Other neighborhood libraries are deficient, as well. The study determined that eight branch libraries surveyed require anywhere from $900,000 to $2.8 million in work.

Twenty-five community centers included in the analysis need even more work, a total of up to $69.8 million. The Northwest Community Center, a converted school off Military Road, leads the pack with $9.5 million of recommended work.

“We need a new roof, we need new floors, we need new lights in the hallway, there’s a lot of things that we need,” said Sean McCrossan, the center’s director of educational programming.

The Buffalo Museum of Science is upgrading its exhibit spaces and studios with funds from foundations, corporations and individuals, but the city-owned building otherwise requires $20.2 million in work. Big-ticket items include a restored entrance and new roof.

“Any type of water penetrations or leaks or whatever could cause irreparable damage to the collection, and that’s why the roof is a priority for us,” said museum President Mark Mortenson.

Three of Buffalo’s other city-owned cultural institutions also require major work, according to the report. Between them, Kleinhans Music Hall, Shea’s Performing Arts Center and the Historical Society Museum need $52.3 million in work.

Buffalo’s parks, including the historic Olmsted system, require $65 million in work, starting with Cazenovia Park. The report identified up to $15.7 million in work at the South Buffalo park that includes updates to both its pool and ice rink. Delaware Park requires $11.2 million in work that includes numerous upgrades to the Marcy Casino.

While city tenants would like to see their buildings improved, they said they understand the city lacks the money to make all the necessary repairs and upgrades.

“There’s always a tension in terms of there’s more demand for projects than funding available,” said Stone of the library system. “You have to prioritize what’s in greatest need, greatest demand.”

City defers maintenance

How did City Hall dig itself this deep of a hole?

City politicians have been more interested in building facilities than maintaining them.

The growth of its building stock has come in fits and starts, the latest flurry in the 1980s and early 1990s when a flood of federal funds fueled initiatives by then Mayor James D. Griffin that underwrote a mini-building boom of community centers, ice rinks and other civic facilities.

The infrastructure of those buildings – roofs and heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing systems – is starting to require replacement. In addition, changes in federal and state laws have mandated that buildings become accessible to the disabled.

These buildings join an already large collection of aged facilities constructed back in the city’s heydays.

Consider City Hall. The Art Deco structure opened in 1932 and lacks basic amenities such as central air conditioning. The elevators can be touchy and the faucets in some restrooms spit out air, not water.

The building looks and feels like not much has been done to it for decades. If it were commercial office space, it would be categorized as Class C, at best.

Slow to spend

While buildings have aged, the city’s elected officials have spent little to update them. There’s been lots of deferred maintenance.

Buffalo’s capital budget is modest, given the city’s needs, averaging about $22 million annually in recent years. Much of it is spoken for before building improvements are even considered.

Basic infrastructure – street repaving, sidewalk replacements and the like – account for $5.4 million of the 2014 capital budget. Another $3.3 million is earmarked for the demolition of vacant housing. Another $2 million goes toward the purchase of vehicles for the Police and Streets and Sanitation departments. Altogether, that adds up to nearly half of the budget.

Only $400,000 is designated for community centers, a fraction of the $69.8 million of capital needs identified by the consultant.

Libraries get another $400,000, against their need of $14.9 million.

Parks are in line for $1.6 million – more than libraries and community centers – but a far cry from the $65 million the consultant said is needed.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the money will be spent on time. Schroeder, in his most recent report on capital spending issued nearly a year ago, found the city had spent only half of the funds earmarked in the 2012 capital budget and only three-quarters of the money contained in the 2010 budget.

Since he has taken office, Schroeder has worked to recapture capital money that hasn’t been spent after five years and only sells bonds when the work is ready to begin.

“We don’t want money sitting here years on end,” said Patrick J. Curry, the comptroller’s spokesman. “Why incur interest costs if the money is going to sit in an account for years before being used? You’re just incurring unnecessary interest costs.”

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