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Brown links cultural aid to red-light cameras

Fines paid by red-light runners who are caught on surveillance cameras would end up helping cash-starved cultural groups under a plan unveiled Friday by Mayor Byron W. Brown.

In a bid to advance a red-light cameras initiative that he has been touting for years, Brown is offering to use $300,000 from the project as one-time grants to dozens of arts groups that had their county funding eliminated this year.

Brown announced the push on the same day that he released a $462.3 million spending plan that calls for hiring 43 new police officers and 35 new firefighters.

The plan would hold the line on homeowners' tax rates while reducing commercial rates by 1.3 percent.

Given the fact that the Common Council has yet to authorize red-light cameras, Brown said he did not include any projected revenues from the cameras in his budget.

Brown emphasized the public safety aspect of the cameras as opposed to their potential for generating revenue.

"The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently announced that camera enforcement in 14 large cities across the nation reduced the rate of fatal red-light-running crashes by 24 percent between 2004 and 2008," Brown told reporters at a City Hall news conference.

But the Council's leading advocate for providing city assistance to as many as 30 cultural groups challenged the mayor's funding model.

"It seems like a political gimmick to me," said Delaware representative Michael J. LoCurto. "If you care about the arts, then don't tie funding for them to a controversial program."

The mayor's proposed budget would reduce the city's tax levy -- the amount of money it generates through property taxes -- by about $1 million. Overall spending would increase by about 1 percent.

Brown's plan to fund new classes for 43 police recruits and 35 firefighters will likely be discussed in budget hearings. Some have noted that with anticipated retirements, the city's public safety forces could shrink even with the new hires.

Other key elements of the budget include:

Money to demolish 400 blighted structures and rehabilitate 250 properties.

No increases in fees, including the garbage user fee.

$70.3 million for the school district -- or about half of what the city raises through property taxes. City aid to the school district hasn't increased in five years.

$500,000 for a new public-private partnership for programs that aim to increase high school graduation rates and improve college attainment rates.

The city would use $12.3 million of its surplus to help balance the new budget -- or about $300,000 more than earlier projections.

The plan funds more than 30 new jobs that will be tied to the city's takeover of police cell block operations from Erie County. At the same time, the mayor would cut 19 jobs in the city's substance abuse services division, said Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa.

The Council will begin budget hearings Monday.

Some lawmakers already are raising questions. Finance Committee Chairman Michael P. Kearns said he's concerned about the number of job vacancies. There are currently about 120 unfilled positions that are in the budget.

"I believe it's over-taxation of the public," Kearns said.

The mayor bristled at Kearns' comment.

"I don't even know how the comment of over-taxing people would make any sense when for the last six years we've reduced the tax burden in the City of Buffalo," Brown said.

He noted that if his new budget is approved, residential property tax rates will have decreased by 15.2 percent over six years, while commercial rates will have dropped by 16.2 percent.

He also noted that the city faces fiscal pressures, including a $6.3 million cut in state aid and a projected $3.1 million cut in county sales tax revenue. What's more, employee health and pension costs will rise 15 percent, while gasoline expenses are up 59 percent.