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Editorial: Brown's city budget is sound

Mayor Byron W. Brown’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019-20 is not exactly a lean one, but it does something few municipal budgets ever achieve: It decreases spending.

Brown’s stay-the-course plan, subject to approval by the Common Council, is for $508.6 million in expenditures, a 1% decrease from the last fiscal year. A city with large swaths of poverty has great needs, and a population that is far smaller than it was decades ago. Like other levels of government, the city needs to continue to find ways to deliver services more efficiently.

The spending plan does give residential property owners hopes of seeing a slight tax break. The residential property tax rate would change from $18.49 per $1,000 of assessed value to $18.47. However, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. The city is conducting a tax revaluation that will have a greater effect on individual tax bills in 2020, particularly in neighborhoods that have seen significant appreciation in property values. For someone whose home has tripled in value in the last 10 years, the two-penny per $1,000 discount will be of small consolation at tax time.

Commercial taxes, meanwhile, will rise slightly, from $28.22 per $1,000 of assessed value to $29.48. It’s a stresser, no doubt, but many developers have also received tax breaks for projects in Buffalo.

As the mayor pointed out in announcing the spending plan, both the residential and commercial rates are significantly lower than when he took office, a reflection of rising revenues in that period as well as sensible financial management.

One aspect of the mayor’s plan shows true forward thinking: The city’s intention to partner with the New York Power Authority to buy the city’s lighting system from National Grid and convert it to LED lighting over a three-year period.

The city is negotiating with National Grid on the sale, at an estimated cost of $80 million which it would finance through a 20- or 30-year bond. City officials say the project would produce $1 million or more in savings after the conversion and installation of the LED bulbs, through the elimination of monthly facility charges and a reduction in energy use. LEDs – or light-emitting diodes – emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reduce electricity use by more than 50 percent compared to traditional bulbs.

Michael J. Finn, acting commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Works, said the plan to change over Buffalo’s 32,000 lights to LEDs would reduce carbon emissions by 11 tons per year.
The cost savings to the city will pay for the debt service on the lighting project, making it a green investment that is also sound financially.

The budget plan wisely takes a more conservative approach than last year to revenue from Seneca-owned casinos, slotting in $11 million. The Seneca Nation of Indians still has not paid the $255 million it owes the state – a share of which goes to cities in which casinos are located – despite a state arbitrator in January ruling against the Nation in its dispute over the payments. The Senecas have appealed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is not expected to overturn the arbitrator’s decision.

The city expects a rise in sales-tax revenue, partly from an internet sales tax. With its rainy day reserve funds mostly depleted, city budget makers need to continue to remain conservative in their assumptions and get more aggressive in finding savings.

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