City of Buffalo residents had to know that taxes would eventually go up. It’s never fun but – with an important asterisk – it’s time.
Mayor Byron W. Brown recently released his proposed 2018-19 budget. It recommends increasing residential property taxes by 3.4 percent and commercial property taxes by 5.5 percent. All in all, not too bad, especially given Brown’s record of holding the line.
But Brown is also in his fourth term, and that's where the asterisk appears. His years of experience give him the responsibility to do more. He needs to re-engineer the city. Instead of paying to maintain an infrastructure built for 650,000, the mayor needs to be searching for ways to accommodate the 200,000-plus who actually live here. It could be done by finding more ways to consolidate and share services with the county or state.
The mayor has been fiscally responsible in managing the city’s finances. For much of his tenure, he held the line on taxes or cut them. City residents and businesses have been able to keep a lot of spare change in their pockets, unlike surrounding municipalities and other similar cities. That’s something to bear in mind when considering the administration’s $513.6 million spending plan.
The proposed budget introduces new licenses and fees and increases other fees, including the much-maligned garbage-user fee. Still, some suburban communities are paying much higher rates. This increase would allow the service to become self-sufficient and start paying down the outstanding debt to the city’s general fund.
Over the past 12 years, those fees haven’t risen even as the costs of labor, health insurance and other expenses have gone up. The increase is reasonable. Meanwhile, the plan maintains funding programs primarily aimed at youth and increases funding for the Buffalo Public Schools.
The budget includes the usual “housekeeping” expenses such as funds for enhancing the city’s information systems network and modernizing the city’s system for tracking minority- and women-owned businesses on city projects. These are small fiscal items and an upgrade of the information systems network is long overdue. Technology is forcing change and it makes it necessary to keep pace, especially when it comes to cybersecurity. Infrastructure is more than roads and bridges and sewers.
A public facility maintenance and security surcharge is included in this proposal that would apply when tickets are purchased for sports and cultural venues in the city, such as Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Kleinhans Music Hall, Coca-Cola Field, KeyBank Center and Canalside. The rationale for the surcharge is to cover cost of training for emergency responders and overtime needed to ensure the safety of ticket holders, according to the mayor.
It sounds reasonable. Many out-of-town people come into the city to enjoy concerts, sporting events and other activities. That puts pressure on city resources, and has been paid largely by city taxpayers. Still, the charge could pressure some attractions that already operate on thin margins. It needs to be considered carefully.
There are cost pressures all around. The City of Buffalo and other municipalities face the pressure of increasing costs for pensions and health care.
The Common Council should take care in examining the proposed budget and keep in mind the fact that the mayor has kept the line on tax increases and that state aid is flat even as cities contend with the effects of inflation. The proposed tax and fee increases should not come as a surprise.
It’s a good budget, but the mayor needs to look further down the road and begin to reconcile the facts of a smaller population occupying a city built for more. That’s Brown’s charge and, as a mayor with three terms under his belt, he now has the experience and the clout to grapple with it. If he can move the city in that direction, it will pay dividends for many years to come.