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Plan for finance chief runs into opposition

Mayor Byron W. Brown is prepared to appoint a new finance commissioner, but his push to give the person a six-figure salary is making waves.

In fact, the city comptroller's office isn't ruling out a possible court fight, claiming the higher salary can't be paid without the comptroller's signature. The dispute erupted Monday and was another sign of eroding relations between Buffalo's two top elected officials.

Brown's office won't divulge the candidate who has been selected following a seven-month search, but Communications Director Peter K. Cutler confirmed the person lives in the area.

The mayor wants the Common Council to change the charter, creating a new title that would give the finance chief expanded duties. He's also asking lawmakers to boost the job's salary to $104,000, from $83,000. The post would pay $1,000 less than the mayor makes, and would be the city's second-highest paid appointive post. Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson makes $105,824.

But city Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo is challenging the move, claiming the pay increase would illegally circumvent the system. SanFilippo was in New York City on Monday meeting with Wall Street analysts, but he sent his new deputy comptroller and auditor to lobby Council members against a plan that lawmakers are expected to approve today.

Darryl McPherson, a former city attorney who most recently was the city control board's top legal adviser, claimed the mayor's plan to add "one word" to the title of the new finance post doesn't give him the legal right to unilaterally raise the salary.

The new job would be called commissioner of administration, finance, policy and urban affairs. The word "policy" is not currently in the title.

City attorney Peter Savage III said the expanded duties would include lobbying in Albany and Washington, and implementing accountability measures.

"The central point is that this is a new position," Savage said, stressing that the comptroller has no say over salary if the Council agrees to create a new job.

McPherson accused the mayor's office of advancing a "thin" argument, claiming former Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy performed the same tasks.

Tony Farina, the comptroller's executive assistant, further argued that the pay upgrade, which would occur at a time when a control board has frozen city wages, would be unfair.

"This proposed amendment blows up the city's salary structure," Farina said.

SanFilippo makes $88,412 a year. His deputies make $73,209.

Most Council members said they're comfortable with Brown's plan, with University representative Bonnie E. Russell urging the mayor's office and the comptroller's office to do their "bickering" outside the Council arena. Relations between Brown and SanFilippo have been strained in recent months.

Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana said he agrees with SanFilippo -- any move to assign a new salary to the finance post requires the comptroller's signature.

"I see this as an end-run around the comptroller's office. This is not a new title," Fontana insisted.

Donna J. Estrich, a veteran city fiscal analyst, has been serving as finance commissioner since shortly after Milroy's departure last summer.

The control board also would have to approve any new position and higher salary. Board spokesperson Nancy Brock said the oversight panel would defer comment until the Council takes action.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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