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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Thursday, December 10

According to he national news media, it snowed here.

Buffalo's HUD black hole: Money goes in, never to be seen again.

Friday, December 11

“HUD to me has always been one of the deepest kinds of mysteries,” said Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, as she introduced Deputy Secretary Robert Sims of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to a gaggle of journalists at her district office on Main Street. The willingness of a HUD deputy secretary to travel to Buffalo to discuss the city’s issues was emblematic, she said, of “a new HUD”—more open, more given to outreach, more determined to make sure that the money it directs to cities does what it is supposed to do: alleviate poverty, inprove housing, develop depressed urban cores.

Slaughter had invited Sims to Buffalo “to seek solutions for the systemic problem of misused HUD funding” here. Tough words from Slaughter, whose district includes the city’s East Side, but of course it’s the truth: For decades, Buffalo has been infamous for its ineffective and often corrupt use of federal anti-poverty funds, and matters have not improved much under the administration of Mayor Byron Brown. In March, the local field office for HUD released a scathing audit of the city’s administration of community development block grant money. HUD’s Inspector General announced in August that he would conduct an audit of the city’s use of federal funds, as a result of the scandal surrounding the failed restaurant One Sunset.

So Slaughter very publicly brought Sims to town for a series of meetings: with the agencies that apply for and receive HUD funding through the city; with members of the Common Council and Brown administration officials who deal with federal anti-poverty spending; and with the mayor himself. Slaughter’s unilateral invitation that HUD come to town and examine the failings of city government was widely perceived as a snub to Brown. The mayor has long had designs on Slaughter’s seat, after all; it has been assumed that he would wait until she retired to run for her seat, but rumor has it that his political team has invested in research on the possibility of a challenge next year. And there was the strange fact that when HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan toured a couple of the city’s desperate neighborhoods in October with Congressman Brian Higgins and Senator Chuck Schumer, Brown declined to join them, sending a deputy mayor insteaf. (She was late.) But both Sims and Slaughter dismissed any notion that the visit was motivated by anything other than a desire to write a new chapter in Buffalo’s relationship with HUD, “to lift the stain from this city,” as Slaughter put it. Both characterized the mayor and his administrators as cooperative and their meetings as positive.

Sims said that HUD and the City of Buffalo would map out a consolidated plan—a set of “understandings,” he called it—to codify how HUD money would be applied for, how applications would be evaluated, how the money would be administered and accounted for, etc. He refused to say how HUD would react if city government failed, as it so often has, to abide by those understandings.

Saturday, December 12

Governor David Paterson came to town to promise an additional $50 million in state aid to spur development of the city’s downtown waterfront.

Sunday, December 13

Demonstration of the week: Nearly 200 people gathered in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park to express their support for the Olmsted Conservancy, which has maintained six of Buffalo’s Olmsted parks since 2004, when the cash-strapped city handed administration of its parks over to Erie County. In the summer of 2008, Erie County Executive Chris Collins indicated he would not renew the county’s agreement with the city at the end of 2009, and until recently the Brown administration seemed to put little effort into determining how the city would resume control of its parks system. In a recent Buffalo News article, David Colligan, chair of the nonprofit Olmsted Conservancy, said the conservancy had had no meaningful negotiations with the city about continuing its much-praised stewardship of the Olmsted system, fueling speculation that the mayor intended to end the public/private partnership.

Monday, December 14

Today Buffalo’s Common Council voted unanimously in favor of revisions to Mayor Byron Brown’s capital budget. The Council’s revisions altered about $2.6 million of the $22.7 million budget, shifting money to projects in councilmanic districts that the mayor’s original proposal had given short shrift: South, Lovejoy, Fillmore, Niagara, and Delaware. These are, not coincidentally, the districts represented by the five majority members, who occasionally stand in opposition to the mayor and supported South District Councilman Mickey Kearns primary challenge to Brown this fall. Among the newly funded projects include a walking path along the Buffalo River, improvements to Broderick Park at the foot of West Ferry, and a new housing subdivision along a former railroad right of way south of Kenmore Avenue.

Meantime, in Albany, Governor David Paterson lived up to his threat to withhold state aid to municipalities (AIM funds) in order to keep the state solvent. The City of Buffalo, for example, will see its promised $19.2 million AIM payment for December reduced to $15.7 million. “In the worst case scenario, we would be able to absorb the cuts,” said Deputy Comptroller Tony Farina. “Remember we ended last fiscal year with $133 million fund balance and we have a rainy day fund” Further reductions in AIM payments are likely. “It’s hard to get a straight answer out of Albany these days,” Farina siad, “so we frankly don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Representing concerned trees, Franklin LaVoie advocates for Olmsted parks. (photo by Deb Ellis)

Tuesday, December 15

Some of those who attended Sunday’s rally for the Olmsted Conservancy in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park gathered in Common Council Chambers this morning for a public hearing called by Finance Committee Chairman Mickey Kearns. If they came armed for bear—many of those in attendance were convinced that the Brown administration was stalling on entering into a contract that would retain the Conservancy as custodian of the city’s Olmsted parks—they left thoroughly disarmed. Assistant Corporation Counsel Brendan Mehaffy told the 50 or so in attendance (which number included one Franklin LaVoie, dressed in an elaborate tree costume, pictured above) that the evening before, the city had signed a memorandum of understand with Local 264, one of two unions guaranteed the parks jobs under the 2004 agreement that shifted maintenance from the city to Erie County, in the event that the responsibility for the park should return to the city. The other union, Local 650, is also expected to sign the MOU, in which the unions grant permission to the city to enter into parks maintenance contracts with third parties such as (but not limited to) the Olmstead Conservancy. In exchange, the unions are guaranteed minimum staffing levels at city parks.

The Brown administration indicates it hopes to reach a one-year agreement with the Olmstead Conservancy before January 1, and will look to negotiate a long-term contract in the new year. The matters that remain to be negotiated, Brown said, are residency requirements, minority hiring guidelines, and the city’s living wage statute.

Wednesday, December 16

The snow melted.

-—geoff kelly

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