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Brown names Penksa city's finance chief

A former UB administrator who sat on Erie County's control board and once served as a budget negotiator in the Assembly will be tapped to become Buffalo's finance chief.

Janet Penksa, who currently works for a lobbying firm that represents the city, will be nominated today by Mayor Byron W. Brown to a fill a newly expanded $104,000-a-year cabinet post.

Penksa still must be confirmed by the Common Council, and the city control board must authorize the salary, which is $21,000 higher than that of previous finance commissioners.

Penksa was a member of Brown's transition team, which screened and recommended candidates for key city jobs.

Penksa spent nearly seven years as an associate vice president at the University at Buffalo, where she was involved in developing financing strategies for initiatives. She spent 15 years working in fiscal posts for the Democratic majority in the Assembly and was secretary to the Ways and Means Committee, serving as lead negotiator to Assembly leaders on fiscal matters.

Brown said several candidates were considered for the post, but Penksa rose to the "top of the list."

"She has a great academic background and incredible experience in the governmental, university and private sectors," Brown said. "She certainly has a strong handle on government finances, and she's tremendously creative."

Penksa, who grew up in a New York City suburb, has lived in Buffalo for eight years. She said her "love for the city," coupled with her respect for Brown and desire to return to public service prompted her to apply for the job. Her nomination comes a month after city officials announced that Buffalo's positive fund balance grew by $16.9 million last year to an accumulated fiscal cushion of $56.1 million.

But Penksa said projected shortfalls in future years can't be ignored.

"The city continues to have out-year problems, although it's come a long way in dealing with the more immediate needs," she said.

Penksa says Brown's decision to expand the finance commissioner's role to include lobbying and policy-setting will make it easier to grapple with challenges. For example, she said expanding the city's tax base through innovative programs that turn decaying buildings into shovel-ready development sites is critical to Buffalo's future.

"You have to expand the tax base, because you can't cut as deeply as you have in the past and still provide services," she said.

Penksa views her negotiating skills as a strength, saying she helped forge solutions during contentious state budget struggles in Albany. She's aware of growing frustration among city workers and elected leaders over a wage freeze imposed by the city's control board in April 2004. She hopes all parties can work together to find ways to improve long-term finances so the wage freeze can be lifted. What about calls from some Council members and union leaders to abolish the control board?

"In the end, we're going to have to work with the control board and within the statutory framework," she said.

Brown named Donna J. Estrich finance commissioner on a temporary basis after James B. Milroy resigned. Brown was expected to make another appointment today, naming the first Hispanic in history to serve as second-in-command of the city Law Department. David Rodriguez has been specializing in real estate cases, criminal defense and civil litigation.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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