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CITY HALL OUTRAGES ARE A PRODUCT OF ITS CULTURE OF MEDIOCRITY

City Hall's real estate department has been busy lately, which should provoke the same horror in residents as Puff Daddy at a polka festival.

In case you missed it, the city paid $700,000 for a lot for the new downtown police station without checking if a leaking fuel tank might be buried there.

It was. Cleanup cost: $108,000.

It also handed a developer $122,000 more than he paid for a property he'd closed on seven minutes earlier. The land will someday be a parking lot, presumably with gold-plated meters and a uniformed attendant making six figures.

It's not like this is some once-in-a-lifetime foul-up. Just the opposite. It's a symptom of a buck-stops-nowhere culture in City Hall. Residents are so used to this stuff it's getting hard to get worked up about it. It's like we've been immunized to scandal.

Adding a stench to the outrage is the fact that City Hall's real estate director and a co-worker run a private real estate business. Nobody at this point is suggesting they're working both sides of the fence, but at the very least it doesn't look good.

The city's attorney is investigating, to make sure the deals were merely dumb, not criminal.

The larger problem is a punch-the-clock mindset inside City Hall that's nearly as old as the building itself. Born of patronage and habit, it condones mediocrity and promotes bloat. It survives from mayor to mayor, Makowski to Masiello. Changing it will be like turning the proverbial battleship in the bathtub.

Tony Masiello privatized the water department and got a full workday out of sanitation men, but the bigger picture stayed the same. Until it changes, until more people stop feeling like a cog in a rusty machine, we'll keep getting hit on the head.

Doubt it? Consider other hits in recent years: The city treasurer who stashed $13 million of tax checks in a drawer. The deputy city clerk who pocketed $200,000 in license fees. The $1 million bath the city took on a bad brew pub loan. A homeowner complaining of sagging floors in new subsidized housing who was told to lose weight. A mayor and Common Council voting themselves huge raises. Houses that got demolished by mistake and streets that get plowed manana. A historic canal slip that's reburied after it's discovered. A million dollars to get lead paint out of three houses. A city department that urges demolition of historic buildings behind the mayor's back.

Confirming what we already knew is a national study of how cities are run. Buffalo and New Orleans ended up at the bottom in a ranking of 35 major cities with grades of C-minus. The mayor blamed state laws that tie his hands. But anybody who's waited months for a pothole to get filled or navigated a maze for building permits knows Albany is just part of the problem.

There's hope of change with the new City Charter, which kicks in this summer. But no charter makes people pay $700,000 for contaminated property or take a $122,000 hit on a parking lot.

The city had months to pressure the guy who'd bought the lot before he closed the deal. It had months to squeeze out -- under threat of eminent domain or other weapons -- a better price. Instead, it rolled over and meowed.

The beat goes on, and it's our drum getting pounded.

Asked if they knew about the leaking fuel tank on the $700,000 downtown lot, the city's real estate mavens pled ignorance. Yet it took Buffalo News reporter Tom Dolan all of 15 minutes to find the buried tank on property records at City Hall.

When asked about the developer who made a $122,000 profit, city real estate director Dennis Dargavel uttered the line of the new century:

"So (the developer) made a couple of bucks," Dargavel told The News, apparently under the illusion he works for Microsoft and not a city facing a $27 million budget hole.

In Milwaukee, a mayor named John Norquist changed the cultural plumbing inside his building. He told workers to think of taxpayers as customers. He rewarded ideas and stopped begging the state and Washington for handouts. Norquist wrote a book about it, "The Wealth of Cities."

But hey, who's got time to read? Don't worry, be happy. Shout it loud: We got a C-minus.

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