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Mayor's proposed economic development solution wouldn't fix the problem

Brown, state of city 2010

There is a germ of a good idea -- and a couple of significant problems -- with Mayor Byron Brown's proposal to fold the Buffalo Economic Development Corp. into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, as he announced Friday in his State of the City address.

What's good about the idea is that consolidation in this town of many silos is almost always a good idea. Both agencies are in the business of dealing with the city's economy and spending public money, much of it flowing from the federal government. True, the agencies don't have the exact same mission, but they're certainly not dissimilar or incompatible.

So, conceptually, the mayor is on the right path.

But there are at least two major problems with the proposal.

First, BURA is as screwed up an agency as BERC.

I say this (1) based on my first-hand dealings with both agencies and (2) BURA's documented track record.

Remember the critical audit of the city's use of block grant funds, in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found 19 serious problems? Well, the agency responsible for staying on top of the program is, you guessed it, BURA. That tells you all you need to know.

Use whatever word you want -- inept, incompetent, indifferent -- they would all be applicable to the bureaucracy's performance.  That's not to say there aren't competent people on the payroll -- there are -- but there's not enough of them, and they work within what has historically been a dysfunctional system.

The problems don't stop with the bureaucracy. Nope, the agency's board is just as brutal, and ultimately responsible.

Keep in mind that this is the crew that last fall used its power over block grant allocations to reward and punish housing and human service agencies not for their performance, but their allegiance to the mayor. Organizations whose leaders have expressed criticism of the mayor, or operate in neighborhoods that didn't vote the right way in the mayoral primary last fall, paid the price.

Then there's the manner in which the BURA board handled proposals in December 2008 to build a waterfront hotel at the entrance to the Erie Basin Marina. The experts said to choose a proposal advanced by a consortium headed by Mark Hamister and Ciminelli Development. But the board, at Brown's insistence, instead chose a much more modest project fronted by former Common Council President James W. Pitts, which, by the way, hasn't gotten off the drawing board.

Which leads me to my other major point -- the mayor appoints a majority of the BURA board and therefore controls the agency. Given his track record, do we really want to give Brown carte blanche?

I mean, look at the current makeup of the BURA board -- Brown; Janet Penksa, his finance commissioner; Drew Eszak, the city planner Brown tried to get rid of a while back only to keep when he couldn't find a suitable replacement; Acting Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez; former Common Council member Nick Bonifacio (a Brown appointee); and three current Council members, Dave Franczyk, Mike LoCurto and Mickey Kearns.

Is this the crew you want making the decisions on economic development?

You can grouse about BERC's governing board -- please do -- but at least some of them have professional expertise. That's the byproduct of a self-appointing board that, in theory, functions independent of the mayor. In theory.

On the other hand, to sit on the BURA board, you've only got to be employed by the mayor or be one of his political supporters, or be a member of the Common Council.

No real qualifications are required -- and few are evident.

You can justly criticize the BERC board for not being a close enough watchdog of what its staff has been up to. But the problems that have landed BERC on the front page -- and in hot water -- originated with the staff.

Remember, bankers on the board had the common sense to reject a loan application by Leonard Stokes to help finance One Sunset. It was the staff that found a roundabout way to give him money. And those grants to barbershops? Staff decisions not subject to board approval. And who was the staff taking its cues from? The mayor's office.

So, if the mayor wants to merge BERC with BURA, I say, fine, provided it's led by an independent, qualified board and manned by a competent bureaucracy.

As now constituted, BURA has neither.

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City Hall | Economic Development
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