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Mayor stiff-arms comptroller when it comes to rebuilding fund balance

Seems like three's a crowd for Mayor Byron W. Brown when it comes to determining how much money the city needs to keep in reserves to restore Wall Street's confidence in its ability to deal with fiscal emergencies.

Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams introduced a proposal last December to replenish the city's dwindling fund balance – also called reserves – by requiring the city to set aside 60 days of operating expenses. That would represent 30 days more than is currently maintained in the "rainy day" fund, which has about $39 million.

Brown and the Council would have to agree to adopt such a proposal, but it was intended to start a discussion among elected officials, said Miller-Williams, who set up a meeting for Thursday.

Council members plan to attend Thursday's meeting, but don't count on anyone from Brown's office being there. And when talks do take place, don't count on the comptroller being invited.

The administration tossed cold water on Miller-Williams' proposal from the beginning, contending it impinges on a mayor's prerogatives and could necessitate service cuts.

Now it says it may discuss the idea, but the "entire administration" is first preparing for Brown's State of the City address on Feb. 20. After that, officials said Tuesday, the administration is open to having conversations as part of the budget process – but only involving the mayor's office and the Council, not the comptroller because it says that office plays no budgetary role.

"The Administration does not believe that meeting with the Council before the upcoming budget negotiations – and including parties who do not play a budgetary or policymaking role –  is the most effective way to review outside proposals for any new Fund Balance policies. These cannot be effectively reviewed without the framework of a future budget proposal, and it is the mayor's prerogative to incorporate any of these changes into his proposal," according to a Jan. 27 letter from Donna J. Estrich, commissioner of administration, finance, policy and urban affairs.

Estrich also said "any budget proposal to set aside tens of millions in additional funding would require significant and monumental cuts" to services and personnel and that Miller-Williams' recommendations – which do not include a new revenue source – would "significantly impact" the city's ability to maintain current levels of employment, resources and services.

Estrich added that revenues in several critical areas have grown and the city's long-term fiscal outlook is stable.

However, a replenishment policy could restore the confidence of Wall Street rating agencies and appease the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, both of which have taken a dim view of the city's diminishing fund balance.

By using millions in fund balance to balance budgets, Brown had frozen or cut property taxes every year since taking office in 2006, until the 2018-19 budget increased property taxes and user fees for the first time during his tenure.

Buffalo also finished the 2018-19 fiscal year with a $1 million surplus thanks to New York State advancing $7.5 million of $17 million in disputed Seneca Nation casino funds owed the city, but the dispute has not been settled. Nonetheless, the administration says it's "confident" that in the future it will be able to use casino payments to replenish a portion of the fund balance that has been completely depleted.

Undaunted by the administration's cold shoulder, Miller-Williams said in an email exchange Tuesday, "We are willing to sit down with the Administration and the Common Council to discuss the Fund Balance Proposal Plan in the near future."

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