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Council receptive to Buffalo mayor’s proposed budget

Mayor Byron W. Brown’s 2015-16 budget proposal is now in the hands of the Common Council, whose members initial reaction included praise for holding the line on residential taxes and cutting commercial tax rates, but questions on the city’s new self-insurance plan.

Some council members also gave thumbs up Friday to Brown’s planned initiatives aimed at better tracking vacant properties, improving grass cutting on city-owned vacant properties, and improving snow-clearing on city-owned sidewalks.

Also getting immediate praise were apprentice programs to help encourage and train minorities in engineering and architecture programs, as well as cement finishing work. “I’m excited,” Council President Darius G. Pridgen said following a late-morning budget briefing Brown gave the media as well as city lawmakers and department heads. “I’m pleased about not raising taxes. I’m excited about the vacant lot sidewalk program. We’re going to have to be careful as we look at the change to self-insurance.” Masten District Councilman Demone A. Smith pointed to Brown’s vacancy initiative, saying it could increase opportunities for selling vacant houses. He also praised apprenticeship programs, which, he said build on successful smaller pilot programs the city has sponsored.

The council officially accepted the budget later Friday, and will now schedule a series of budget hearings before voting on the document. The 2015-16 budget take affect July 1.

Brown released additional details of his $493 million spending plan during the Friday morning briefing, including a better understanding of how the budget fits into his plan to grow the city, and how he was able to reduce spending by $11 million from the current fiscal year.

In addition to savings from self-insurance and reduced overtime costs, the city’s pension costs are down, said Finance Commissioner Donna J. Estrich. City pension details were not immediately available, but state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli previously announced that municipal contributions to pensions would be dropping because of recent stock market gains and improvements in state pension fund earnings. A 9 to 11 percent drop in pension costs could be expected for the 2015-16 fiscal year, the comptroller said last fall.

Also, Brown said, the city’s high bond rating is reducing interest costs on borrowed money.

Brown’s budget plan holds the line on residential property taxes, while reducing the commercial tax rate by 2 percent.

Since taking office in 2006, Brown said, he’s cut the residential tax rate by 16 percent, and commercial by 32 percent.

The tax cuts are part of a larger policy, he said,

“Buffalo is the place to purchase property, live, work and invest,” Brown said.

Brown’s budget also includes other initiatives aimed at building on the current economic activity occurring in the city, and working to ensure all residents can benefit from the city’s upturn.

In addition to the chief diversity officer position he has previously announced, Brown’s budget includes funding to hire a consultant for the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center to support growth of minority and women-owned businesses, as well as funding for the minority apprentice programs.

Brown’s budget also includes funding for a new position to oversee volunteer efforts in the city.

One thing apparently not included in the budget is a participatory budgeting component that Delaware District Councilman Michael A. LoCurto has been advocating.

Participatory budgeting allows the community to directly participate in the budget process, deciding how a limited about of tax money is spent. The Common Council last year appointed a committee to research the issue, and make recommendations on how to incorporate the approach into the city budgeting process. Some 100 people from throughout the city attended a recent public hearing on the topic in Council Chambers.

LoCurto said he was disappointed Brown’s budget didn’t have a participatory budget component, but that he remains hopeful it will be included in the mayor’s next Community Development or capital budgets.

“The community is very much wanting this,” LoCurto said.