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BORROW AND SPEND
BUFFALO'S MOUNTAIN OF DEBT IS A TESTAMENT TO POOR MANAGEMENT

Where are Rogers and Hammerstein when you need them? The late great songwriters, whose hits included a tale about a girl who "cain't say no," would have had a field day with Buffalo, the city that couldn't do the same.

Buffalo, whose mayor wants the city to borrow its way out of financial quicksand, is in that pit for partly that reason: It never met a loan it didn't like. The city's long-term debt bounded from $155.8 million in 1990 to $465.9 million in 2002, a 200 percent increase in 12 years. Because of the city's long-term addiction to borrowing, nearly one-third of city property tax collections next year will go toward debt service, rather than police or fire protection or road repairs or any other public service.

That is not to say the city borrowed for indefensible reasons. Even critics agree that the projects, which included playgrounds, police precincts and community centers, added to the city's quality of life. The question is not whether the loans bought valuable improvements, but whether a chronically poor city could afford them all, regardless of value. With the city now facing the real prospect of a financial control board, a sign of financial and managerial failure, the question would seem to answer itself.

Buffalo has lacked a lot of advantages over the past couple of decades, including such basics as a growing tax base and healthy labor relations between the city and its public-employee unions. But more than anything else, what the city has lacked is discipline. From the mayor's office to Common Council chambers, the city has been led by individuals who, like the sweet young thing from "Oklahoma!," just couldn't say no -- to constituents and to just about any proposal to spend money they didn't have.

Many factors have once again led Buffalo to the brink of insolvency, but that lack of discipline, well described by the city's compulsive reliance on borrowing, is prominent among them. A history of fiscal restraint might have left the city in better condition to deal with the economic difficulties that all cities in New York are now facing. (Pop quiz: What do all those cities have in common? They exist in New York, a state whose 2002 debt per person -- $1,929 -- was more than twice the national average.)

It is not entirely preposterous that the city wants to borrow yet more money to climb out of its financial hole. The plan, after all, is expected to save tens of millions of dollars down the road by paying for fundamental changes in the city's police and fire operations. But it is, at a minimum, ironic.

Or, as another songwriter might put it, the city got in trouble because it wanted a loan back then, and now it wants a loan again. Naturally.

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