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COUNCIL PLANS FEW CHANGES IN GRIFFIN BUDGET $4 MILLION SHIFT EXPECTED FOR MEMBERS' PRIORITIES

When all is said and done, the Buffalo Common Council today is expected to change only approximately $4 million of Mayor Griffin's proposed $639.7 million budget.

A majority say they will approve a package that closely resembles Griffin's proposal to hike the property tax levy 3 percent, with all of the $4.1 million increase in the levy going to city schools.

They want to shift approximately $4 million to their priorities -- extra funds for schools, firehouses, building inspectors, city auditors and community and cultural groups.

But there are issues they don't agree on, and some are expected to try to raise taxes even higher to give the schools $2.8 million more, block a proposed 12.9 percent water rate hike and eliminate some fee hikes, especially a landlord licensing fee.

The Council came up with the $4 million by cutting fringe benefit accounts, hiking the attrition rate so that fewer people are on the payroll, trimming various departments and borrowing money to pay for garbage trucks.

"This document will serve all of the interests of the citizens of Buffalo," said Council chief of staff Vincent LoVallo as staff readied final figures.

However, Budget Director Thomas Keenan questioned the Council's methods in freeing $4 million for its priorities.

"In many ways, they have cut the budget without cutting spending," he said. "Usually, the best way to fund those costs is to not fill jobs."

Griffin, who can veto any additions, is expected to oppose the Council's adding funds to allow three firehouses to remain open past Jan. 1, when Griffin had proposed closing them, and to restore seven auditors that he had proposed cutting.

Lawmakers are only tinkering with Griffin's plan, since he has announced he won't seek re-election, taking some of the fight out of the budget process. Council members know they are approving a budget that goes into effect July 1 but will be administered by a new mayor Jan. 1.

For the district Council members running for re-election, the budget has features that will play well during the campaign, such as the extra money for firehouses and schools.

Lawmakers also are allotting $300,000 in capital funds for building projects in each district and $20,000 for special programs in each district.

Here are key Council changes to Griffin's budget plan:

Borrowing $4.8 million more than Griffin proposed to pay for three new projects, raising the total capital budget to $26.1 million. The new amounts are $200,000 toward an animal shelter; $560,000 for a new Shea's Buffalo Theater marquee; and $120,000 for restoring city monuments, including $50,000 for artwork at the proposed Crossroads hockey arena.

Restoring 10 jobs that Griffin wanted to cut. They include the seven auditors in the comptroller's office at a cost of $316,907. The Council may even restore a police physician job and a similar job in the Fire Department.

Adding $900,000 for city schools. Griffin proposed giving the schools an extra $4.1 million for a total $49.6 million.

Restoring $883,748 that will allow the three firehouses to remain open.

Adding $169,351 to hire seven building inspectors for a total of 12.

Adding $228,702 for grants to community and cultural groups. Griffin recommended $631,610 in grants, a slight decrease from this year. Even with the
added funds, the grants funding is lower than the $2.8 million the groups received two years ago.

The Council's plan keeps intact Griffin's proposal to hire 23 civilians in the Police Department, putting 20 more officers on the streets.

There also is money in the capital budget for a new firehouse and the continuing reorganization of police precincts.

While Council Majority Leader Eugene M. Fahey, a mayoral candidate, says a majority supports the spending plan, few are really happy with it.

North Council Member Dale L. Zuchlewski said he plans to offer an amendment asking his colleagues to hike the tax levy an additional 2 percent so the schools can get an extra $2.8 million.

"At this point, I don't think I've got the votes, but this at least puts people on the record," he said.

Parents and School Board members have been lobbying for more funding to avoid cutting non-mandated services such as teacher aides and librarians. School Superintendent Albert Thompson this week warned the Council that the schools face a $14 million budget gap that will require more cuts.

But even Council members who support the schools say they can't justify giving more money to what they claim is a mismanaged system. Others say they won't support any more taxes.

"We have no control over how the money is appropriated," said South Council Member Brian Higgins, who remains miffed that the School Board did not take up his offer in December to help the schools get a dedicated percentage of city funds, if the board could guarantee the funds would go into the classroom.

Delaware Council Member Alfred Coppola said he plans to float proposals to chip away at the tax increase.

He and others also want to force the Council to vote separately on the 12.9 percent water rate hike.

Council President George K. Arthur, who lost a bid Tuesday for a session to review the city water authority's $13.7 million budget, said "none of my colleagues know what they (the water authority) are doing."

Griffin's package includes $1.1 million in new revenues from new fees and fee hikes. The Council plans to table at least three of the items, but there is as yet no plan to make up those amounts.

The most controversial is Griffin's proposal to collect $270,000 in fees from landlords by charging $75 for a certificate of occupancy for buildings of three or more units.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk wants to go further by charging additional amounts on all buildings owned by absentee landlords. Originally he wanted to include the proposal in the budget but agreed Thursday to delay it so there can be a public hearing.

Coppola, a fierce opponent of the landlord fee, said he plans to push for a vote anyway. "Why let it linger out there and create hostility in our city?" he asked.

Council members also question raising softball league fees and slip rentals.

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