Mayor Byron W. Brown’s 2015-16 budget proposal apparently continues his sound budgeting of recent years. The devil’s always in the details, and many of those details should be presented in a series of budget hearings scheduled by the Common Council.
The 2015-16 budget begins July 1, and so far the Council has found much to praise, although there are questions about the city’s new self-insurance plan.
Chief among the positive aspects of Brown’s budget is that it will hold the line on residential property taxes and cut the city’s commercial tax rate. Total spending adds up to $493 million, a decrease of $11 million, or 2.2 percent, from the current fiscal year.
To reach that figure, the budget makes some assumptions about savings that will accrue through the self-insurance program. More details should come to light as the budget process advances.
Brown scored a major achievement in reaching a contract agreement with firefighters a couple of years ago. Some contracts that are still open, chiefly with the police union, but also with blue-collar workers, building inspectors and operating engineers, could impact the budget proposal. To its credit, the city has been preparing by setting aside money each year in the budget, so if a contract is settled there is money in the bank for it. The question is, will it be enough?
The city is fortunate to be benefiting from a downswing in pension contributions because its aging workforce means workers with generous pension benefits are retiring, and being replaced by younger workers in new pension tiers that require a greater contribution by employees.
The city also projects savings in overtime in coming years because more than 100 firefighters are being hired to fill vacancies and replace retirees. In addition to the savings on overtime, these new hires for now will earn less than their predecessors.
Unlike some municipalities, Buffalo did not get involved in the pension amortization option, which would have meant short-term relief from pension payments in exchange for higher long-term costs. It was the fiscally sensible direction for the city.
The budget maintains aid to city schools at its current level. It includes funding to purchase 500 tablet computers for 500 Buffalo Say Yes scholars who graduate from high school and attend college, a budgetary highlight that marks the mayor’s increased attention to city schools.
As the mayor stated, the residential tax rate has been cut 16 percent since 2006, and the commercial rate by 32 percent. His proposal to reduce the commercial tax rate by 2 percent is a nice incentive for qualifying businesses. Brown says the tax cuts are part of a larger policy designed to attract people to live, work and invest in the city.
Such careful budgeting is an important piece of the city’s rebirth now underway.