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Mayor emphasizes technology in Buffalo budget for next year

It might be dubbed Mayor Byron W. Brown’s technology budget.

The three-term mayor’s 2016-17 budget proposal again holds the line on property taxes and freezes assessments for the fifth consecutive year.

The budget doesn’t include any sweeping changes to city government, but does offer plans to help address the city’s lead problem, increases efforts to assist minority and woman-owned businesses, and also starts the phase-in of a $15-an-hour minimum wage for city workers.

The budget also includes a series of technology-based programs aimed at making government more efficient and transparent.

As part of that, the budget includes funds to:

• Launch a new, more user-friendly city website, that will be more interactive.

• Purchase software giving people more access to city-owned real estate, providing details on availability of property as well as the ability to submit an offer on-line.

• Update Buffalo’s CitiStat system, being called CitiStat 2.0, making more information on city government department operations available to the public.

• Start an electronic process for submitting development plans to the city online.

• Purchase iPads for city police officers, so they can have ready access to computerized information with them at all times.

“These are things, over time, that will make city government much more responsive and efficient,” the mayor said. “Some services will be delivered a lot quicker.”

Brown’s 2016-17 budget proposal totals $494 million – up about $730,000 from the current fiscal year, which is considerably less than 1 percent.

The budget will be presented Friday to the Common Council, which has scheduled a series of budget hearings that start later Friday afternoon and continue through May 5.

The Council has until May 21 to adopt a budget, which then would go into effect July 1.

Brown said he was again able to hold the line on taxes, in part, because of some savings the city made over the year.

One key, he said, is that the city’s self-insurance programs cut medical and prescription costs by $11 million. Also, over the past year the city rebid its refuse-disposal contract, cutting the annual cost by $2 million.

In addition, this budget plan again dips into the city’s reserve fund, using $10.6 million to balance the budget.

The amount is less than the $15 million in reserves used last year, and is in keeping with the city’s four-year plan, Brown said.

“This leaves a significant unassigned fund balance,” he said.

The city is expected to end its current fiscal year – on June 30 – with a $4 million surplus, Brown said. With that surplus, the city’s fund balance for the 2016-17 fiscal year will be $37 million, he said.

The city also has a $37 million rainy-day fund that the budget does not tap into, he said.

Brown has frozen or cut property tax rates every year since becoming mayor in 2006. In addition, this budget would be his fifth consecutive one that freezes property assessments as well as the tax rate.

The proposed budget does, however, increase the city’s rental registration fee for one- and two-family property to $20 and $40, from the current $10 and $20.

The fee is expected to raise an additional $500,000, with $250,000 going toward a program to address lead issues. Brown said further details on the program are expected to be made public next week.

The spending plan also phases in the $15-an-hour minimum wage for all city workers that Brown earlier this year promised would be in his budget.

Currently, the lowest-paid city employees, including seasonal workers, earn $13.06 an hour. Upon adoption of this budget, their hourly pay increases to $13.37 and will hit $15 an hour by 2021.

The mayor’s budget plan also addresses:

Minority business and employment. The budget includes $500,000 to support the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center on East Utica Street, which offers support to minority and women-owned businesses. The budget also has $75,000 to hire a consultant to strengthen the city’s minority and women business participation programs; and $50,000 to support the Racial Equity Roundtable, a group working to improve racial equity throughout the community.

Youth and education. Money is budgeted for a tutoring program that encourages senior citizens to help young students; and for a school attendance incentive program. The program rewards good school attendance with computer tablets and gift cards. Funds also are included to support Buffalo’s Say Yes to Education program.

The budget also increases funding to the Police Athletic League for youth activities, and increases by 100 – to 1,500 – the number of young people accepted in the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment program.

Parks and recreation. The budget includes an additional $250,000 to fund utilities at 12 city community centers. As a result, the city will pay utilities at all its community centers. It also increases funding for Olmsted and other city parks by nearly $500,000.

“Parks are important to our quality of life,” Brown said. “We are seeing significantly more users in our parks from across the city and region.”