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City Hallways (March 11) Money talk

Heating bills down

The unseasonably warm winter became a financial lifesaver for the financially strapped Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

The agency's salary expenses are way over budget.

So are maintenance costs.

But with the higher-than-normal temperatures this winter, utility costs are way down - $1.2 million below budget, a number big enough to offset the higher-than-budgeted salary and maintenance costs.

The BMHA's gift from Mother Nature was brought up at the city Control Board  -  officially known as the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority - earlier this week, when the BFSA also reviewed finances of other agencies, including city government.

City finances generally get kudos from the Control Board, particularly the Brown administration's success in lowering the property tax levy, and recently, negotiating employee contracts that end lifetime health insurance for some future  retirees.

But there are still issues.

Among them: several unsettled labor contracts; and the fact that overall retiree health insurance costs exceed health insurance costs of current employees, with the gap at $13 million in the last fiscal year, Control Board staff reported.

Also, the city's user fee isn't fully covering garbage and recycling expenses, so the city makes up the gap from its general  fund. R. Nils Olsen Jr., the board chairman, commended the city for not raising the user fee. A new contract for the transfer station is expected to help reduce the gap, city Finance Commissioner Donna Estrich told the Control Board.

Beyond the numbers

The city Control Board is headed by Nils Olsen, a former  UB law school dean. Olsen is someone who very smart people consider to be a very smart person.

At the most recent meeting, when the issue of black and Hispanic unemployment being  higher than white unemployment was raised, Olsen emphasized the  importance of education to help close racial disparities. To that end, Olsen said the Buffalo school district must resolve its long-running teachers contract dispute, integrating teachers into its school improvement plans.

"By far the greatest impediment is lack of a collective-bargaining agreement," Olsen said. "Unless there  is a collective-bargaining agreement with the teachers, you can plan, but the delivery of  the plan is by the teachers.

"If the answer is imposing an agreement, it's not likely to work," he said.

Olsen also said School Board members must work together, rather than continuing on a path of two opposing groups with different visions.

"There has to be more  mutual respect on the board. It's definitely an impediment to addressing these issues," he said.

Housekeeping: City Hallways is taking a couple weeks off.  Just need to get some other work done right now. Check our Twitter and Facebook accounts to see exactly when we'll be back.

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