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Small Talk

Bernie Tolbert Watch: More than a week has passed since the Buffalo News declared former FBI office chief Bernie Tolbert a candidate for mayor, but Tolbert remains quiet on the subject. In a conversation this weekend, Tolbert demurred again.

Schroeder vs. Brown: A couple weeks back, Mark Schroeder, Buffalo’s comptroller, skipped Mayor Byron Brown’s state of the city speech. Jill Terreri of the Buffalo News reported that Schroeder decided to stay away because his office and the mayor’s were feuding over borrowing for capital improvement projects. This weekend Schroeder confirmed that he and the mayor’s office remain at odds.

The terms of the dispute are this: Last August, Schroeder released a report that was extraoridanry in that it stated openly what many folks in City Hall seem to know: There are pots of capital project money, borrowed on the bond market, that sit idle and unspent. Schroeder’s staff identified about $56 million. Much of that money has been borrowed recently but the projects have not yet begun; some of the money was borrowed a decade ago or more, and the projects were never started or never completed. Schroeder wrote in the report that those accounts needed to be settled: Either the projects needed to move forward, or the money ought to be used to pay off the bond.

In the meantime, he would lower the city’s debt ceiling for capital spending by 15 percent, from about $22 million to about $19 million. Schroeder says he chose that number to reflect his understanding of IRS rules that require a municipality to have spent at least 85 percent of the money it borrows for a capital improvement project withing three years of taking on the debt. If the city is having trouble starting the projects it borrows for, he argues, the comptroller’s office should stop authorizing borrowing for those projects until the city gets its act together.

That report came out August 1. But in November, the mayor produced a capital budget that asked for more than $21 million in borrowing. The Common Council approved that budget with few changes. And then Schroeder stood up and said, in essence, that he was serious about what he’d said in August, and that he would not borrow more than $19 million for capital projects this year. (In fact, this weekend he said that he could really only see justification for borrowing about $18.1 million, after reviewing the projects the mayor has asked for.) Further, he is demanding more specificity in the description of capital projects before he’ll go to the bond market to borrow for them: He doesn’t want to see “improvements to city-owned buildings,” he wants to know what improvements and to which buildings. Vaguely described projects that don’t get started on time are a recipe for the creation of pots of money, on which taxpayers pay interest, that politicians can use to pay political favors.

Schroeder has offered a compromise: He is willing to do short-term borrowing, using bond anticipation notes, to get projects started; if the city shows that the project will actually proceed on schedule, thus justifying the interest the city must pay on a long-term bond, he’ll borrow to complete the project.

Needless to say, Schroeder’s position is unpopular in the mayor’s office. Thus the feud. But Schroeder says he has no intention of backing down.

“I wasn’t afraid of Shelly Silver when I was in the Assembly, and I’m not afraid of anyone in City Hall,” he said this weekend.

Which is funny, because that is precisely what Schroeder told Bob McCarthy, political reporter for the Buffalo News, for McCarthy’s Sunday column addressing the possibility that Schroeder might run for mayor this year, should Bernie Tolber enter the race, too, challenging Brown’s command of the city’s African-American vote.

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