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Money for nothing at BERC

Things have gone from bad to worse at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

Mind you, bad was bad. Loans to One Sunset. Grants to barbershops. Stuff like that.

The agency has descended into a state of paralysis since Mayor Byron Brown announced in February his intention to eliminate BERC and shift its work to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

You'd think the mayor would have had a plan in place before making the announcement, but he didn't. If you're looking for one now, well, keep looking.

Some board members - appointed independent of the mayor, who serves as chairman - were miffed that Brown didn't consult with them before announcing his intention to disband the agency. While I'm told there was some talk about fighting him, there was no evidence of that Tuesday at a board meeting I attended. Instead, there was a lot of talk about "transition."

It became clear to me as the meeting unfolded, and in several subsequent conversations I had with folks later in the day, that there is no plan in place to manage this transition. BERC President Dennis Penman told board members he and several high ranking members of the Brown administration - including Finance Commissioner Janet Penska - are working on it. But he doesn't expect the merger to be complete until September, maybe October.

In the meantime, BERC has stopped accepting loan applications and stopped making grants. Last month, its loan department did close on two previously approved loans worth $375,000, and there are two more in the pipeline, but that's it. If you call BERC seeking to apply for a loan, you're told "no can do."

Keep in mind that BERC does three basic functions - make loans, give grants and manage real estate. And on two of three fronts, there is precious little work to be done.

Now you might argue that given the agency's track record, this amounts to addition by subtraction. Problem is that all this inaction is costing money.

The agency employs, at last count, 25 people, at a cost of $1.2 million.  This money comes from block grant funds - i.e., money intended to fight poverty - and other money intended to promote economic development.

I asked Penman after the meeting if there was any plan to eliminate staff now that there is so much less to do. I was told no.

Later in the day I spoke to a rank-and-file staff member and asked what folks were doing now that the loan and grant programs have been suspended.

"Nothing," I was told. "Nothing."

Some of the staff in the field are managing to keep themselves busy. But many folks working out of BERC offices in City Hall have a lot of time on their hands.

Great. The economy is in the crapper. Poverty in the city is getting worse. Albany's fiscal crisis can't help but trickle down. Meanwhile, the city's economic development agency isn't doing much more than paying people a lot of money to do a little work.

Then there are the lawyers. Don't get me started on the lawyers. 

BERC has a full-time staff attorney. So does BURA. Nevertheless, the BERC board was told Tuesday of plans to hire outside counsel to deal with the merger of the two agencies.

All this leads to the obvious question: How many lawyers is it going to take to screw in this light bulb?

Answer: Too many.

All this grousing overlooks the larger issue related to the merger of BERC and BURA, one I wrote about when it was announced.

Moreover, while BERC has an independent board that includes members with professional expertise, the BURA board is controlled by the mayor and populated with politicians and staff who work for them.

It's pretty obvious that Brown announced the merger at his State of the City address to make a political splash - big surprise there, huh? - without doing his homework. More than a month later, there's not much progress to show. Then again, he got the spin he wanted at the time of the announcement, and wasn't that really the point?

On a more positive note, I'll close by reporting the mayor actually showed up for the BERC board meeting Tuesday. As I've reported in the past, he hasn't been in line for a perfect attendance sticker. But this time around, the mayor is marked down as "in attendance." Alas, he was tardy, showing up a half-an-hour late and doing little at the meeting aside from introducing a member of his staff. 

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tagged

City Hall | Economic bailout | One Sunset
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