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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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Playing hardball on the waterfront

It's pretty clear that the nobody-elected-them crowd charged with developing Canal Side, a.k.a. Bass Pro,  has no intention of negotiating a community benefits agreement. They've been sounding that drum beat in the public utterances of Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., and through other assorted avenues.

What's got Levy and company all worked up is that the Common Council -- which, I will note, is elected by somebody -- going strongly on record in support of a community benefits agreement. To the point where it has said, "no CBA, no transfer of land to make portions of the project happen."

The coalition supporting the CBA is broad based -- a who's who of the region's progressive community. It reached out to the development corporation a week ago Friday asking for a commencement of negotiations.

A week and a half, Levy and company have yet to respond. Rather, they're doing all their communicating in the media. And the answer is a resounding NO.

Unfortunately, this is par for the course.

Keep in mind that Bass Pro was selected as the anchor tenant without benefit of any competition. Nope, the friendship between Florida neighbors and fishing buddies Bob Rich and Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris was sufficient.

Benderson Properties -- a Buffalo-connected company that made much of its fortune and reputation by building strip malls, not entertainment/historic districts -- was selected as site developer by the ECHDC board, again with no competitive process.

The politically influential law firm of Phillips Lytle was selected to do a lot of the corporation's legal work, and EHCDC is now discussing leasing the old Donovan Building to the firm once millions of public dollars have been spent on rehabbing it.

This is the kind of conduct that gives authorities a bad name.

All this isn't to say Levy and company will get their way. If the Council hangs tough, they will have no choice but to come to the table. Not that it should all fall to the Council.

Rep. Brian Higgins is a player, as well. He was instrumental in establishing the development corporation in his early years in Congress. And last year, he made a deal with the New York Power Authority to accelerate payments to the project and add $50 million to the pot.

In short, Higgins is the agency's sugar daddy. He is in a position to tell Levy and Co. to knock it off and deal with the CBA advocates in good faith.

From where I sit, what Levy is doing involves needless risk for the project. The Partnership for the Public Good, the Coalition for Economic Justice and others pushing the CBA are the very people I'd expect to be flat-out opposed to this deal. Instead, they've proposed a process that would result in their endorsing it.

And the problem is?

I mean, Aaron Bartley and company are known to have organized a picket line or 20. 

PUSH Buffalo protest

I would think the last thing Levy or Higgins wants to see is people starting to organize in opposition to the use of more than $150 million in public funds to create mostly low-wage, part-time jobs. Which is one of several ways reasonable people can view the project.

Maybe Levy and company think the project is so well bankrolled -- with tax dollars, of course -- and deep enough into the public review process that they can afford to thumb their nose at CBA supporters or pick off enough Council members to get what they want.

Perhaps they are right. And perhaps they're not. I just do not understand why they're running that risk. I mean, is building to green standards and promoting locally owned businesses a bad thing?


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One more boarded up building

They started boarding up the Lafayette Hotel on Thursday. It will serve as a bookend to the boarded up Statler Building, which dropped some more chunks of cornice yesterday.

Lafayette hotel But not to fear, Mayor Byron Brown is on it, what with his third reorganization of City Hall's economic development operation in four years. Never mind that the first two didn't pan out and that the third one now underway involves employees sitting around with little to do because the city has stopped taking loan applications or making grants, effectively getting out of the economic development business for the time being.

People used to criticize then Mayor Anthony Masiello for "economic development by press release." Well, folks, what we have now is "economic development reform by press release."

The mayor has long said economic development is his priority. What he has to show thus far are boarded up buildings, a growing number of unemployed city residents and an economic development agency on life support.

Oh, and criminal investigations. Let's not forget about the investigations.

I wonder how that national job search for a commissioner of economic development is going. Have they so much as placed an ad yet?

Look, I don't expect the city's economy to be flourishing, given the recession. But City Hall needs to do the best it can with it has control over. And it's not. 

You can't even get the mayor to show up on time for BERC board meetings, if he shows up at all. What kind of message is that sending?

Akron ohio postcard I've been in several Rust Belt cities the past month, including Rochester and Akron, Ohio. I've ridden and walked their downtowns, and what's struck me is they don't have nearly as many boarded-up buildings as Buffalo.

In fact, their downtowns are in noticeably better shape.

People, I'm talking Akron. Frickin' Akron.

Akron and Rochester have been hammered just as hard as we have over the past generation, but their downtowns don't have expanses that look like Beirut, circa 1980. We've gotten more block grant aid and other economic development assistance than either city -- hell, we may have gotten more than the two of them put together over the past 30 years - and conditions here underscore how badly we've squandered the money.

I don't foresee anything changing soon, given City Hall's continuing ineptitude.

As Sonny and Cher once put it, the beat goes on.

Hit it, kids.


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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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Musings for a Monday

There are a lot of screwed-up operations in local government, but for my money, none of them can touch the Erie County Sheriff's Office. 

The county Holding Center is a house of horrors, and Matt Spina reported Sunday on the department's practice of granting what amounts to overtime pay to management personnel to perform a task they don't actually perform. Sheriff Tim Howard doesn't see a problem with this, of course. Then again, he thinks the Holding Center is just dandy, too. 

I'm not sure $425-an-hour lawyers, much less $150-an-hour PR flaks, can save this operation.

Oh, for the old days of B. John Tutuska -- to say nothing of Andy and Barney.

I've heard from two planners who said City Hall never even acknowledged receipt of their resume, much less talked to them, when it conducted its so-called search for a new city planner. Both seem to have legit credentials. The position, if you recall, was filled by a lawyer already on the city payroll who has never worked as a planner.

The folks at have a pretty funny, NCAA-bracket-inspired competition called PoltiFAIL. It pits the usual suspects against each other and lets readers choose who is more at fault for the state of the region. They're down to their Sweet 16, and pairings include Dale Volker vs. George Maziarz, Chris Collins vs. Barbara Miller-Williams, and the Western New York voter vs. Steve Pigeon. Good tongue-in-cheek fun. The list of bad politicians is depressing long, however.

The Chicken Littles are out in full force, with dire warnings from the School Boards Association and Buffalo Superintendent James Williams, about the prospect of massive layoffs if the state doesn't keep funding schools in a style they're accustomed to. A few Assembly members, including Sam Hoyt, have come up with one obvious solution -- a wage freeze for teachers. It's been happening in the private sector -- along with wage cuts -- as businesses come on hard times. Not that I expect the teacher unions to go along, as ever-increasing pay is regarded as an entitlement. I'd like to hear someone talk about consolidation of school services in the short run as a precursor to a merger of districts. We've got more than 30 in Erie and Niagara counties alone. Face it, school property taxes are the real killer in this state, and part of the reason is all the duplication that comes with the multitude of districts.

The recent Assembly vote on the budget included several "no" votes of note, as nine Democrats, including  Hoyt, Francine Delmonte, Robin Schimminger and Bill Parment, joined Republicans in saying "no, we shouldn't." The measure passed anyway, 91-51. It would cut school aid less than what the governor has proposed and enables the borrowing of $2 billion. 

The Citizens Budget Commission, a critic of Empire Zones, sees merit in the Excelsior program proposed by   Gov. David Paterson, saying it has "potential for a better, more effective program." The commission offers this smart analysis on what's wrong with Empire Zones and good about Excelsior.


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More things I think you ought to know

Come to find out, District Attorney Frank Sedita isn't the only county official who is not using the services of County Attorney Cheryl Green. Mark Poloncarz, the county comptroller, recently decided to stop using her, although he's still availing himself of some members of her staff.

Like Sedita, Poloncarz is a lawyer himself.

One could write this off as partisan politics, but I think it goes beyond that.

The zealotry with which Green has defended conditions at the county Holding Center has a growing number of people questioning her judgment.

And the fact she's won only one of seven motions and other legal arguments she's made to block federal and state efforts to address problems at the Holding Center also has people questioning her competency as an attorney.

The Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. canceled its board meeting last week amid a lot of chatter and speculation that Mayor Byron Brown intended to ask board members to resign en masse as part of his effort to fold BERC into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

The board meeting was canceled for reasons unexplained. My guess is that board members didn't want to give Brown a forum. Sources I've spoken with said the mayor, through intermediaries, has put out the word that he doesn't want BERC issuing any more loans or making any more grants.

Board members are peeved the mayor called for the agency's dissolution without so much as a courtesy call, much less a discussion before a decision was made.

What's more, members have a fiduciary responsibility for BERC's nearly $30 million in assets. I imagine they realize they simply can't walk away, given the absence of a transition plan. 

Maybe Carl Paladino can muscle his way into the Republican race for governor through the strength of the $10 million he says he's prepared to spend. But thus far, he's being treated as an afterthought even before he's formally announced his intention to run.

The state Conservative Party ignored his plea to hold off making an endorsement and gave the nod this weekend to Rick Lazio. Meanwhile, many press accounts outside of WNY about the competition for the GOP nomination either fail to mention Paladino or mention him only in passing.

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Progress, of sorts, on the Bass Pro project

No, no, Bass Pro hasn't stopped hemming and hawing about whether it will actually commit to building a store at the foot of Main Street.

Rather, the Common Council has gone on record in favor of a community benefits agreement for the Canal Side project. A unanimous vote, in fact. As in, Mickey Kearns and Damone Smith actually agreed on something.

You can argue the specifics of the CBA -- and people will, over the coming months -- but the mere fact a community benefits agreement is being seriously discussed represents progress.

I say this because a CBA for Canal Side would represent one of the first instances in this town in which a wide range of specific public benefits would be more than an afterthought in the construction of a publicly subsidized development.

Think of the ways in which government has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies at businesses, be it deeply discounted hydropower to industry via the New York Power Authority to big tax breaks to downtown businesses under the Empire Zone program to yet other big tax breaks granted to businesses by industrial development agencies.

Suffice to say, looking at the economic landscape in the nation's third-poorest city, the subsidies have worked better for the businesses that have gotten them than the public that has doled them out. That's in part because there has been little built into the subsidies by way of real benchmarks and accountability.

A community benefits agreement changes that. In the case of the resolution passed by the Council, a CBA for Canal Side would:

... ensure that small local businesses — not just big- box retailers — would be accommodated and nurtured. For example, one clause would set aside three-quarters of all retail space that is not part of the Bass Pro development for locally owned, independent businesses.

The pact also would set local and minority hiring goals for temporary and permanent jobs, require builders to use environmentally friendly "green" technology and include affordable housing.

One of the most controversial provisions would require businesses with more than 20 employees to pay a living wage, a rate that is higher than the state's minimum wage.

It behooves both the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and CBA advocates to find a way of negotiating an agreement. Not that there wouldn't be a need for compromise.

For a guy like Larry Quinn, a mover and shaker on the Canal Side board, a CBA would show that he means business when he says this town needs to take a different approach to economic development.

For CBA advocates, getting a deal in place would represent a first of sorts, which would give them something to build on. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has mastered the art of negotiating CBAs, and I suspect its first deal wasn't perfect. But it was a start to bigger and better things.

As for whether Bass Pro ever puts a shovel in the ground, well that remains to be seen. But it's very likely something is going to happen at the foot of Main Street, and a CBA could help promote a better return on the public investment.

Whether the project as proposed represents a good public investment is a question for another day.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, the Buffalo Pundit has some thoughts on the Council's action.


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City planning director by default

Not to get on Brendan Mehaffy's case before he's had a chance to hang the pictures on his office walls -- from scattered reports I've heard he's a fairly sharp attorney -- but Byron Brown has hired a city planner who has never worked as a city planner.

Yeah, a look at his resume shows he has a master's degree in urban and regional planning and his work as an attorney has involved planning issues. All that helps.

But the job of a city planner is to be a planner, not a lawyer, and one could argue that having an experienced planner is especially important in a town that has a history of terrible planning decisions.

That's one issue. The other is that, as best as I can tell, Mehaffy is the only job candidate Brown interviewed.

If you recall, the city did an extensive search for a planner more than a year ago and offered the job to Michael Kimelberg, a Buffalo native working in Seattle. He accepted the position, then had second thoughts and turned it down. 

Suspecting that the administration did not conduct a new job search, and hearing City Hall was having a hard time getting candidates to accept the job after Kimelberg turned it down, and further suspecting Brown and Co. didn't interview anyone in recent months other than Mehaffy before offering him the position, I e-mailed Cutler the following:

Peter: I have a few questions related to the hiring of Brendan Mehaffy.
What kind of job search was involved - local, national? How many candidates applied for the post? How many were interviewed?
While he's had experience dealing with planning as an attorney, he hasn't worked as a planner, which could be regarded as a pretty big hole in the resume. What was the rationale in bypassing someone with experience as a planner?

Cutler responded with this:

There was as you may recall a national search that resulted in the initial announcement of Michael Kimmelberg, but he withdrew.
Drew Ezak continued in the role on an interim basis and did an admirable job.
The Mayor ultimately chose Brendan Mehaffy, with the support of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, based his broad experience and knowledge, which I think is evident in both his resume and his professional employment.
To help you understand better his excellent qualifications, I’ve listed below some of his more notable academic and work experience:
Academic & Professional:
· Planning Degree
· Law Degree with a Community Development Focus (no joint MUP/JD program when I went to UB)
· 18 months in Kansas City working for a national land use law firm writing comprehensive plans, zoning codes, and subdivision regs for municipalities around the country
· 3 years in Buffalo working for a land use/environmental firm litigating urban renewal plans, zoning code, environmental matters, and working with developers and planning firms
· City attorney assigned as counsel to Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Parking (which is planning)
· Deputy Director of the WNY American Planning Association for 3 years, member of the national APA for 6 years
· Committee member on the Buffalo SmartCode Initiative
· Elmwood Village Design Committee Member (until I became a City Attorney)
· Longtime Member of Partners for a Livable WNY

Peter didn't exactly answer my questions, so I responded with this:

Is that to say you drew on the pool of applicants from the search that resulted in the Kimmelberg hiring?

More importantly, who, besides Mehaffy was interviewed this time around before the decision was made to go with him? I'm not looking for names, but number of candidates who got interviews.

Cutler's response:

The Mayor went with the person he believes will do the best job, especially in light of the plan to reconfigure the city’s overall economic development activities.
I don’t know why a number is so important to you, Jim. We’ve got an extremely experienced and talented person to do a very important job.

That, of course, did not address my questions, so, being the pain-in-the-butt reporter that I am, I asked one more time:

I want to know if anyone else was interviewed, and if so, how many of them. Based on your response thus far, my hunch is that no one else was called in form a formal interview. Please confirm, correct and, if you so desire, otherwise enlighten.
As for experience, yes, he has it as a lawyer. It does not appear from his resume that he has worked a day as a planner, however.

I sent that e-mail last Tuesday and I haven't heard from Cutler since. My experience as a reporter tells me that when you ask three times "how many job candidates were interviewed" and you don't get a straight answer, it means that the only guy interviewed was the guy who got the job.

Mehaffy's hiring is not the end of the world. He might work out.

In fact, he's likely to work out better than some of the other folks Brown has hired into key positions, although I realize that may be damning with faint praise.

Perhaps more telling is what this says about how undesirable City Hall has become as an employment destination for top-shelf talent.

I mean, to find our new planning director, Brown only looked nine floors up in City Hall, where Mehaffy was working as an assistant corporation counsel. He's the lawyer Brown entrusted the negotiations with the Olmsted Conservancy, which the administration came close to tossing out in the street despite the stellar jobs it has done.

The hiring also raises questions about just how diligent the Brown administration is being in filling other top jobs. We've been promised national job searches in filling the top jobs in the police, fire and economic development departments.

Is the mayor breaking a sweat in trying to recruit and hire the best and brightest? Or will he and Steve Casey be satisfied in hiring loyalists who will walk with petitions, host fund-raisers and do as they're told.

It's not like they haven't done it before.

There was the appointment a few years back of Karla "Too Much Information" Thomas to a secure six-year term as Human Resources commissioner.  She had some paper credentials, but I suspect they didn't count as much as being president of Grassroots, the political club with close ties to the mayor, and being a longtime sidekick of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, a Brown ally. 

I can envision a scenario in which Acting Police Commissioner Dan Derenda -- who is tight with Casey, has contributed to the Brown campaign, and whose family apparel business has done business with both the city and mayor's re-election committee -- gets the appointment as H. McCarthy Gipson's permanent successor.

After a "national job search," of course.


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Why aren't we treating this as a crisis?

State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Buffalo Schools Superintendent James Williams are bickering about whether the graduation rate among city students indicates stagnation or progress.

Depending on the benchmarks, the numbers released by the state Education Department show modest to no real improvement.

Using the Class of 2005 as a benchmark, Steiner notes that the city's four-year graduation rate inched up only one percentage point, to 53 percent in 2008. And that factors out more than 800 students held back in eighth grade because they were deemed not academically ready for high school.

Williams, using the Class of 2006 as a benchmark, says the graduation rate went from 45 to 57 percent and hails the Class of 2009 rate, including kids who graduated after attending summer school, as a marked improvement.

Yeah, I know, dubious.

High school students

The quibbling over the numbers mask an indisputable reality.

More than four out of 10 high school students are failing to graduate from high school on time. We're talking some 1,050 kids for last year's would-be graduating class alone.graduating

Anywhere from a quarter to a third of high school students have dropped out in recent years. We're talking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kids a year.

The numbers are depressing, regardless of the racial group, and especially bad among Hispanics. The graduated-on-time percentage for them was 45 percent, the dropout rate 32 percent, for the 2009 graduating class. For blacks, it's 55/23. For whites, 64/21. 

Stagnation? Progress?

I have a better word.


Yeah, crisis.

Why isn't this, and why hasn't this, been treated as a crisis?

Education is as close as it comes to a silver bullet to social ills. Crime, poverty, you name it. If you want to know why we rank as the nation's third-poorest city, look no further than the aforementioned numbers.

Yeah, there's more to it than that -- industrial decline and all that -- but if we want to get back on our feet, we've got to make sure more of our kids are getting an education. Our city is populated with thousands of high school dropouts, and they function as an economic albatross.

Pin our abject failure on poverty if you want, but there is a growing body of research that shows high expectations and a smart educational system can make a big difference. Of course, that requires commitment and fresh thinking, something in short supply in this town when it comes to our schools -- among other issues.

City funding for its schools has remained flat in real dollars while costs have spiked, and we've left it up to the state to make up the difference. 

Neither Mayor Byron Brown nor anyone on the Common Council has rolled up their sleeves and tackled education as a serious issue, despite its importance to the city's future.

So, blame the politicians, but also blame the voters. 

Turnout for the last school board election was a pathetic 5 percent. Compare that to the nearly 60 percent of Iraqi voters who showed up at their polling stations a few days days ago, despite bombs going off left and right.

The BTF? As a union, its primary obligation is to look out for the economic well-being of its members, but it would be nice to see them loosen their grip on their cosmetic surgery rider.

Lazy or indifferent parents? Yes. Absolutely.

Not enough money to do the job? Please. We're spending some $20,000 per student per year. That's not chump change.

Long story short, we as a community need to treat low graduation rates as a crisis. A freakin' crisis. And we need to do it now.


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Brian Davis sentence, short on punishment, is par for the course

He stole and he lied, but Brian Davis will not spend one minute in prison or pay one penny in fines thanks to the sentence handed down Wednesday by Chief City Court Judge Thomas Amodeo.

Instead, Davis was granted a conditional discharge, ordered to perform 200 hours of community service -- of his own choosing -- and prohibited from taking a job involving the handling of money for a year.

It could have been worse -- indeed, some will consider it a slap on the wrist -- considering that each of the two criminal counts he pleaded guilty to last November carried a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

To say nothing of the fact that Davis, in pleading guilty to pocketing $1,900 in campaign funds for personal use and masking his actions by filing false disclosure reports with the state Board of Elections, became the city's first elected official in more than 50 years to end up with a criminal record as a result of his conduct in office.

Unfortunately, the sentence is par for the course when it comes to public corruption around these parts.

John Doscher, chief of the district attorney's special investigations and prosecution bureau, said the Davis case was the 50th case he has handled since 1989 involving the misuse of public funds by someone on the public payroll. Most were rank-and-file employees, but about a half-dozen of them were elected officials.

Doscher said he doesn't recall on of them receiving a jail sentence. Only a small number were fined, he said.

I find this telling. White-collar crime by politicians and government employees just isn't a big deal when it comes to judges and prosecutors. Not enough to actually impose what the public would consider real punishment.

I quizzed Amodeo and Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III after Davis was sentenced and came away thinking their jobs leave them with a different perspective -- and frankly, a little tone deaf -- when it comes to while-collar crimes committed by people who get paid by taxpayers.

For Amodeo, his decision was pretty straightforward. He read the pre-sentencing report issued by the county Probation Department, asked the DA in attendance if he had any thoughts, and then pretty much imposed the recommended sentence. Amodeo said he follows the recommendations most, but not all of the time, and I came away from my interview with the sense that the Probation Department's report on Davis was fairly gentle.

Sedita wasn't about to criticize the sentence. That's not how he and most prosecutors operate.

More to the point, Sedita views his job, first and foremost, as putting violent criminals behind bars. People who murder, rape, etc. Politicians who steal from their campaign contributors don't rise to the same level. Nor should they.

He'll prosecute them, but he picks his spots when asking a judge to impose a stiffer sentence than what the probation folks recommend, and it almost always involves a violent crime. The DA wasn't about to depart from normal operating procedures on the Davis case.

OK, I understand. Compared to the horrors they routinely deal with, Davis pocketing $1,900 in campaign money and filing false campaign finance disclosure reports aren't that big of a deal to the judge and the DA.

As a result, Amodeo and Sedita, as well as the Probation Department, treated this sentencing as business as usual. But this was not a routine case.

Rather, we have a very visible violation of a public trust committed by a politician with a history of transgressions. Again, he's the first city politician to get caught with his hands in the cookie jar for at least a half-century.

Brian davis Moreover, Davis and his lawyer weren't exactly fessing up in comments they made before Amodeo handed down his sentence.

Yeah, Davis said all the right things about accepting responsibility and apologizing to his family, friends and constituents.

At the same time, he and his lawyer insisted that Davis did not intentionally commit a crime.

Rather, they chalked it up to "stupidity," implying that this was somehow out of character.

What a load of you-know-what. 

The crimes he pleaded guilty to were very much in character. As I reported in April:

... the Council member has a history of running afoul of state authorities and people to whom he owes money.

Since 2000, state officials have placed a lien against Davis to collect unpaid income taxes, suspended his driver’s license for lapsed auto insurance, and frozen his campaign account because of violations of election laws, according to public records and interviews. His license remains suspended and his campaign account frozen.

Davis has gone through personal bankruptcy and his Council wages have been garnisheed, according to public records. He and his wife also had their home built by a developer who does business before the Council, and their house is exempted from property taxes.

Creditors, including state tax officials, have filed five liens with the Erie County clerk and five lawsuits in Buffalo Small Claims Court in an effort to obtain payment of $22,456 in debts, public records show. Some $8,018 of that has yet to be paid, records show.

Davis, who failed to respond to repeated interview requests from The News, also has been under scrutiny for his involvement with One Sunset, a now-closed restaurant on Gates Circle that was launched with the help of city loans and grants.

I followed up with a story in May documenting that Davis doctored his resume to claim a college degree he didn't have.

Now maybe this isn''t how it's done in court, but it would have been nice if the judge or prosecutor had challenged Davis or his lawyer in the middle of their "dog ate my homework" speeches.

Rodney Personius, Davis' lawyer, spoke about how difficult the past year has been on Davis, how it has changed him. He essentially gave the "my client as suffered enough" speech.

I'm sure it has been hard for Davis. But he is hurting from self-inflicted wounds and, from where I sit, I don't see where it has humbled him.

Davis wouldn't resign from the Council until every major political ally except Mayor Byron Brown had called for him to step down, even as Sedita was insisting that Davis had no choice but to resign.

Then, Davis tried to make himself a player when Democratic committeemen convened to consider his successor, to the point where some in attendance said he was a disruptive presence.

To top it off, I'm told by one person active in Ellicott District politics that Davis recently told him and others that he is giving serious thought to running for his old Council seat in 2011.

Does this sound like a repentant person?

Then again, why should he be?

Davis has learned, as have 49 others before him, that when you commit a crime while on the public payroll, your punishment isn't going to get much worse than community service.

That explains in some small way why local government in this region is the pits. Corruption, while not endorsed, isn't really punished.


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