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Buffalo's budget blues

The ward of the state known as the City of Buffalo faces some tough fiscal choices in the next couple of months.

Brian Meyer and Pete Simon report in today's Buffalo News that city government is facing a $24 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year, while the Board of Education faces a shortfall of $34.2 million.

In recent years, City Hall and the School Board could count on Albany to bail it out, but the state's $9 billion budget deficit means the locals are going to have to solve their own problems.

City government finds itself in the hole for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that budget deficits are bound to happen mortibound cities like Buffalo, which struggle to deal with the legacy of poor government, poverty and a loss of both people and business. 

The insistence of Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council to pursue the politically popular route of cutting property taxes the past four years hasn't helped.

The city's tax base is another factor - in case you haven't noticed, there aren't a lot of construction cranes to be seen, and what little development we've experienced is usually accompanied with tax breaks that have helped the bottom line of developers, but not the city treasury.

The schools, meanwhile, are looking to the city to close some of its budget gap. Good luck.

City Hall has long been unwilling to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to education. Partly as a result, Buffalo schools are more reliant on state aid than any district in New York.

South District Council Member Mickey Kearns is sounding an old refrain - that city school are top heavy with administrators and that some of them have to go if the district has any hope of getting more money from the city.

Perhaps. I covered city schools during the mid- to late '90s and looked into that issue at one point. The claim didn't hold up. Spending on administrative overhead as a percentage of the budget was lower than in suburban districts. Maybe things have changed since then, but my first-blush reaction to Kearns' remarks is "Geez Mickey, that argument sounds kind of moldy."

The silver lining in all this is that both the city and school board have a bit of cushion.

Brown and the Council have reserves, and some wiggle room in pending proposals, to work with.

And the school board is working with a budget of more than three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars, which has consistently grown even in the face of declining enrollments. I have a hard time believing the district can't find ways of cutting in ways that don't seriously harm the educational program. But my fear, based on my years of covering the board, is that in cutting the budget, the district will put the interests of adults ahead of children.

I came away from my years of covering the district firm in the belief that it was more of a Board of Adult Employment than a Board of Education. I won't pretend to have any particular insight into the crew now running the district, but the fiasco at McKinley High School a couple of years ago strongly suggests that nothing much has changed in this regard.

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