Mayor Byron W. Brown's first budget proposal will likely hold the line on residential property tax rates.
Brown met with department heads and most Common Council members Monday to review the city's long-term fiscal outlook. The mayor must submit a spending plan to the state financial control board by May 1, and the Brown administration has been dissecting requests from city departments.
Brown opened the budget hearing by stating that the city continues to face fiscal challenges. Nevertheless, the messages that he and Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy delivered were largely upbeat.
Milroy said the administration is determined to avoid an increase in residential tax rates in the fiscal year that begins July 1, even if it means making additional spending cuts in some areas.
Brown reiterated the goal after the hourlong session, saying he is confident homeowners will be spared a rate increase.
"It's important, because we're working very aggressively to get people to invest in the City of Buffalo," Brown said. "Taxes are something they look at."
State law would prevent the city from imposing a major tax increase. Buffalo is already close to its constitutional taxing limit. Still, the city could legally boost the rate by nearly 6 percent and stay below the ceiling. Such an increase would add nearly $100 a year to the tax bill on a home assessed at $75,000.
But Milroy and Brown made it clear they do not anticipate a rate increase.
In fact, there are murmurs that tax rates might even drop slightly, depending on the impact of state equalization formulas due out next month. These formulas try to distribute tax burdens fairly among municipalities.
Another factor that can affect rates is the assessed value of property. In the last year, the hot real estate market has increased the assessed value of property in Buffalo by about $140 million.
Milroy, who sits on the Water Board, also predicted that water rates will remain unchanged July 1. Last week, a separate city authority indicated that it plans to hold the line on sewer rates.
If the predictions pan out, it would be only the second time in the last decade that residential tax rates, water rates and sewer fees would all remain unchanged in the same year.
A block club president who attended the meeting said he was pleased with the early budget preview.
"It tells me the city is finally holding the line on spending so citizens don't have to pay more," said Arthur J. Robinson Jr., who heads the Seneca-Babcock Community Block Club.
Robinson also praised the city's effort to accelerate a demolition blitz. Included in a request for state aid is a push to snare an extra $15 million for demolitions. "We have to clean up this city before we rebuild it," he said.
The mayor expressed cautious optimism that his administration would be able to persuade the control board to lift a wage freeze if an Assembly plan is approved that would provide Buffalo with an additional $26 million in aid. Gov. George E. Pataki has proposed a $12 million increase.
Control board officials have stressed that until "structural changes" are made that lower the cost of running City Hall, the 23-month-old wage freeze would stay in effect. But Brown said he is hopeful that plans to make city operations more efficient would satisfy the control board's demand for systemic changes.
He also expressed optimism that contractual changes can be negotiated with unions to help save money, especially if bargainers know that their actions could result in the wage freeze being lifted.