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Pig roast inflames City Hall feuding amid projected budget gaps

Pig is on the table – literally.

Mayor Byron W. Brown’s Annual Senior Citizens Barbecue and Pig Roast has grown to about 1,500 attendees at a cost to taxpayers of about $40,000, plus another $3 to $5 per person collected from attendees as food ticket "donations" to help cover costs, the administration said.

But city Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, who is auditing the barbecue, said the optics of calling it "the mayor’s" event look bad especially in the face of a projected $28 million shortfall in expected revenues so far this fiscal year and a possible $23 million hole when last year’s books are closed.

Now the dispute over $40,000 has grown into a larger argument over what is a political event versus a city event, and when campaign dollars instead of taxpayer dollars should be used in a city facing such potential budget issues.

The amount budgeted for Senior Services – which organizes the get-together – represents .06 percent of the city’s annual budget, said administration spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge.

"For an annual event that is so well-attended and enjoyed by so many with such little cost in the context of a $500 million city budget, it’s surprising that he has chosen to declare war on seniors. Playing politics with senior services is shameful," DeGeorge said.

Schroeder, who ran against Brown in the 2016 Democratic primary, says "he’s all for seniors."

"If it was the mayor’s fund-raiser, we wouldn’t be asking any of these questions. We wouldn’t have any standing in it, but we do have standing in this," Schroeder said.

The audit will examine everything from the numbers of donuts, plates and napkins purchased to the cost for police, fire and EMTs and for City Hall employees who staffed the event.

The barbecue – which was held Aug. 3 this year in Front Park – first came up in discussions at a Common Council meeting last month about who should pay for an outside audit of the troubled Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority that Schroeder wanted done at an estimated cost of $50,000. Patrick J. Curry, Schroeder’s top aide, noted that the $50,000 would be "roughly the same cost as the mayor’s pig roast." That dispute ended when the comptroller recently announced that he would start the BMHA audit using his own staff.

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But he still has the pig roast in his cross-hairs, calling it a political event that should be paid for with campaign money, not city dollars, and saying Brown should take his name off it and not collect money from attendees, which makes it seem even more like a political fund-raiser. He said seniors who attend essentially pay twice – once in their taxes and again for the food tickets – and compared it to political fund-raisers that carry the politician’s name in the title, including his own "Mark-aritaville."

In fact, he said the name is one reason his office does not scrutinize it in the same way as other taxpayer-funded events like the Common Council’s annual Senior Ball, a dinner/dance paid for with Council members’ discretionary funds.

"It’s not 'Council President Pridgen’s Senior Ball,'" Curry said, referring to Ellicott Member Darius G. Pridgen. And Council members fill out a form that’s reviewed by the comptroller’s office when they want to use their discretionary funds.

But DeGeorge pointed out the barbecue and pig roast has been included in the annual budget presented by the mayor and approved by the Council.

"Clearly the comptroller is upset he doesn’t have any control over that or control over how the event is branded," DeGeorge said.

In addition, the roughly $4,000 collected at this year’s event helped cover the costs, DeGeorge said, with anything left going into a fund solely dedicated for senior events throughout the rest of the year.

The argument comes as the comptroller’s office says that, four months into the new fiscal year, about $28 million in revenue in not materializing as the administration projected. That includes $2 million from a new ticket surcharge – critics call it an illegal "tax" – at five major entertainment venues that is still being haggled over. It also includes $17 million in casino revenue the Seneca Nation contends it no longer owes and $2 million in donations under a plan to help wealthy taxpayers avoid the impact of a federal law capping deductions.

The administration counters that it is still on track to get that $2 million, and it has asked the state to make up the casino revenue, as it did for the city of Niagara Falls.

Another $7 million is revenue that had been projected from the sale of city-owned property. It also looks like the 2017-18 budget will have a $23 million shortfall that the city may need to draw on reserves to close, Curry said.

But the administration sees it differently, with DeGeorge saying, "We fundamentally disagree with the idea that there will be a revenue shortfall and predictions of such are completely irresponsible."

Schroeder sticks by his numbers.

"When residents’ taxes and user fees are going up, they have a right to question whether the ‘Mayor’s Pig Roast’ is the best way to spend their tax dollars," Schroeder said, when asked about the event as the city faces such budget issues. He also dismissed the argument that the event consumes only a tiny fraction of the city budget. "My job as comptroller is to watch over every penny."

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