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Editorial: Comptroller's budget revisionism

Is the City of Buffalo’s comptroller entitled to a do-over in assessing Mayor Byron W. Brown’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019-20?

That will be up the Common Council to decide when it evaluates the revised, more mayor-friendly report issued by Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams six days after the release of her initial evaluation in which she questioned some of the mayor’s revenue assumptions.

It’s early in her tenure, but so far Miller-Williams is not earning high marks for independence, an essential quality for the job to which she was appointed in mid-April.

There was a marked change in tone in the two reports, as pointed out in Monday’s Buffalo News story. Miller-Williams’ first report sounded a skeptical note, saying, “It is risky to rely on revenues in an adopted budget that appear uncertain or premature as prior years have proven.”

Nearly a week later, the comptroller’s revised report accentuated the positive: “While the administration relies on some revenue sources that are untested, the pursuit of new revenue streams is worthwhile and encourages new growth.”

As Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said, the new report read as if it came from a parallel universe. It’s not science fiction, though, but the realities of politics at play.

Miller-Williams’ predecessor in the job, Mark J.F. Schroeder, took his role as fiscal watchdog seriously, often challenging the mayor’s budget projections. He also challenged Brown for his job, running a campaign for mayor in 2017.

Schroeder left the Comptroller’s Office in January, resigning to become commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. That removed a major source of irritation for the mayor.

The Common Council appointed Miller-Williams as comptroller and, as the Democratic nominee, she is almost certain to win the post in November’s election.

Miller-Williams is no stranger to how politics work in Buffalo. She served three terms as the Ellicott District Council member, ran for Erie County sheriff in 2001, and most recently was chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature’s Finance and Management Committee.

Connecting the dots between the new comptroller and the mayor is not a strenuous exercise. She came from the Grassroots political organization that also helped elect Brown to office. Miller-Williams’ office last week welcomed a new special assistant, Delano Dowell Sr., who formerly worked for the Brown administration in finance, policy and urban affairs.

We don’t know that the mayor pressed the comptroller to amend her assessment of the budget, but her change of tune in less than a week does not portend well for the expectation that Miller-Williams will stay above the political fray and guard the city’s finances independently.

In the comptroller’s initial report, she cited $21 million in “questionable” revenues in the budget, including $11 million in casino funds. The amended report listed only the $11 million as “questionable.”

The casino funds have been at issue due to the dispute between the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York State over revenues the state shares with localities. The comptroller’s original report stated, “The state itself has not included any casino funds in its own budget for the upcoming fiscal year and has recommended that host municipalities do not either.”

Her amended report said the city “has included casino revenue in its 2019-20 budget and has continued to include the formulas for municipalities to do the same.”

There were discrepancies in the two reports on revenue from the sales of city real estate, and projections from new parking meter rates, a new tax-foreclosure plan, a proposed tax on entertainment tickets and whether the city would finish the fiscal year with a surplus or deficit.

The role of an independently elected city comptroller is to serve as a check and balance on the mayor and Common Council. Miller-Williams declined interview requests from The News to explain her revisionist take on the budget, but for now her checks and balances aren’t adding up.

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