It seems to be accepted that the City of Buffalo is at fault for failing to make the necessary decisions to cut expenses to a level it can afford, now that it can no longer rely on state bailouts. Is that valid, or, on the contrary, is the State of New York at fault for failing to face up to the bind local governments, especially cities, struggle with because of our 19th century structure of government?
Buffalo is not unique. According to a Brookings Institution study published just a year ago, "Sprawl Without Growth: the Upstate Paradox," all of New York's upstate cities are in fiscal distress because of the loss of population, households and businesses and the consequent decline in tax base. Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Binghamton, as well as Buffalo, have all suffered from the flight of their middle class out to the suburbs.
While Buffalo's revenues from property taxes have been going down, its sales tax revenues based on assessment and population have also steadily declined. The fact that Buffalo was the first of the upstate cities to reach the crisis stage warranting the State Legislature's action to create the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority in June 2003 to oversee the city's borrowing and spending may be attributable, certainly in part, to the fact that Buffalo receives only 19 percent of the county sales tax, while Rochester receives 31 percent and Syracuse 25 percent of their counties' sales tax.
At the same time that Buffalo's revenues have been declining, the suburbs, especially the ones farther out, have enjoyed increasing revenues. Other than a few municipal services supported regionally, there is no tax sharing.
New York's structure of local government, consisting of cities, towns, villages and counties, has changed little from the municipal boundaries drawn in an era when the state was primarily rural. It's a structure that is hardly equipped to effectively serve a developed metropolitan area in which the economic and social patterns have no boundaries.
Other states have established tax-sharing arrangements across metropolitan regions, stopped sprawling development and encouraged investment in the cities. Even others make it easy for the cities to expand through annexation as their populated area grows. Our state, on the contrary, exacerbates the problem by using the Empire Zone law to subsidize new investment out on the fringes.
With the continued suburbanization in New York State, the state is following a pattern that is wasteful of infrastructure in its cities and first ring suburbs, is destroying its resources in agricultural and rural land, clean air and fresh water, and is impacting the health and well being of its people.
Rather than supporting smart growth policies, the state is leaving its cities without sufficient revenues to support an adequate level of services for their residents.
Katherine Tarbell of Williamsville is co-chair of the Local Government Regionalism Committee of the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara.