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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

GRISANTI’S MANY FATHERS: They say that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. (No one around here seems to know who said that first. John F. Kennedy was fond of the expression.) That is certainly borne out in what is likely to be a victory for Republican Mark Grisanti against incumbent Democrat Antoine Thompson in the race for the 60th District State Senate seat. (The recount in that race, which Grisanti leads by 598 votes, began on Monday. Grisanti’s lead will be difficult to overcome, and rumor has it that Albany Democrats are preparing a job into which Thompson can make a soft landing.) Everyone wants credit for his victory, and Buffalo News political columnist Bob McCarthy seems happy to let them have it: In his column on Sunday, McCarthy let Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy attribute Grisanti’s apparent victory to the work of Republican Party and the tidal wave of votes for Carl Paladino.

Mark Grisanti with Artvoice's end-of-year issue, in which a contributor predicted that "Thompson will skate through the September primary only to be defeated by a very well known and very well liked Democrat in the general election."

That’s nonsense: Paladino’s coattails barely covered his own behind in the 60th District; if Thompson loses, it will be because too many voters in his East Side Buffalo base stayed home. (Thompson’s totals pale in comparison to Mayor Byron Brown’s results in last year’s Democratic primary.) Local Republicans contributed essentially nothing to Grisanti’s campaign, which was largely directed by Joel Giambra, the former Erie County executive whose relationship with the Republican Party had turned sour by the time he left office. Langworthy’s party did not expect Grisanti might win.

Here’s a more interesting question: With whom will Grisanti caucus if he wins? Grisanti is a registered Democrat, and though he ran on the Republican line, he does not owe his victory to financial or manpower support from that party. (In fact, like any old-line Democrat, he owes more to the trade unions, who dropped their endorsement of Thompson and provided volunteers to Grisanti’s campaign.) Notwithstanding his showing in the general election, the 60th District is a tough one for a Republican to hold: Thompson is unpopular, ran a poor campaign, was mercilessly lambasted in the press for the last 10 months, and was an incumbent in a year when the anti-incumbent mood was fierce. A popular Democrat might easily unseat a Republican Grisanti in two years. Being part of a new Republican majority in the State Senate won’t help, despite the upcoming redistricting: It’s not possible to redraw the 60th District to favor a Republican without disregarding the law.

No, Grisanti’s best bet is to forsake the Republicans and fly over to the Democratic side of the aisle immediately. If, as a result of his defection, the Senate is tied 31-31, then Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy will cast deciding votes on such issues as redistricting—which means that a pivotal Democrat like Grisanti could demand that the 60th District be redrawn to better favor an Italian Democrat from Buffalo’s North Side. That could be accomplished without provoking lawsuits.

KILLING BERC: “They must all be at the Karla Thomas hearing,” said a Common Council staffer, at about 10:15 Monday morning. Members of the Common Council had assembled for a 10 o’clock briefing on the dissolution of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, but so far the administration officials they wished to talk to—finance director Janet Penska, economic development chief Brendan Mehaffy, and City Comptroller Andy SanFilippo—had not appeared. Could they be gathered around Mayor Byron Brown, who, 12 floors below, was enduring another day of castigation at the hands of his former friend and political ally, Karla Thomas, whom Brown is trying to fire from her job as human resources commissioner?

No, indeed: Penska finally showed up, about a half hour late, and Mehaffy arrived 15 minutes later. They were eventually joined by city auditor Darryl McPherson, representing the comptroller’s office.

Delaware District Councilman Mike LoCurto, who has been pressing for information on the dynamics of BERC’s dissolution since the mayor announced in January that he intended to pull the plug on the agency, led the questioning: Where had all of BERC’s assets—money, property, employees—gone?

Tim Wanamaker had a bad habit of "merging accounts all over," says Janet Penska.

Penska told LoCurto that two different auditing firms had been engaged to decipher BERC’s tangled books. The auditors had found some accounts with pots of money that had been sitting unused for years, and Penska said they were uncertain how to reconcile those accounts: Federal money must be spent according to the terms of the original grant, after all, or it can be reclaimed by the federal agency that originally provided it. Penska said that former economic development and planning czar Tim Wanamaker, who resigned in 2008 to take a post in California, had made a bad habit of “merging accounts all over,” creating much confusion.

None of the cash that flowed through BERC has been lost, she assured LoCurto and the other councilmembers on hand; it’s just a tangled mess. She said that she believed the audit of BERC’s finances would be complete in mid-December; a review of BERC’s books by auditors from the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be completed by the end of January. At that point, she said, BERC can formally be dissolved. The agency’s real estate assets will be transferred to the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, which is headed by Peter Cammarata and David Stebbins. BERC’s loan portfolio will be transferred to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, through which BERC’s federal funding has always flowed.

(BUDC is a nonprofit, public authority that works through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to develop distressed property. One of its current projects, called Riverbend, is to attract development to the former Republic Steel and Donner Hanna Coke properties along South Park Avenue—the property purchased by the city from Steelfields in 2008 for about $4.6 million.)

Penska said that one former BERC employee had been hired in a new capacity by the city; two more had been transferred to BURA. Building maintenance employees would remain on staff until BUDC took ownership of BERC properties, at which point BUDC would decide whether to hire them. All other BERC staff had left or been let go as of October 22, according to Penska.

Mehaffy explained that BURA would continue to offer commercial development loans, mostly to small and to some medium-sized businesses, but BURA would farm out the underwriting of loans to an outside bank or nonprofit. The bank or nonprofit would determine whether an applicant qualified for a loan. BURA’s board of directors then would evaluate and approve each small business loan based on whether the applicant’s plan contributed to an overarching plan for revitalizing and stabilizing targeted neighborhoods. Medium-sized businesses would be evaluated based on their potential to create jobs. The bank or nonprofit would service the approved loans. An RFP for the loan management contract was issued last Friday, Penska said.

CAPITAL IDEAS: That afternoon, while Karla Thomas continued her testimony, Common Council Majority Leader Rich Fontana ran a brisk workshop on Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed capital budget for the upcoming year. This year Brown plans to spend $22.4 million on city infrastructure projects, including $2.9 million for city parks, $2.7 million for emergency demolitions, $1.6 for tree planting and removals, and $1.4 million for a new temporary lockup in the basement of the City Courts building, among other expenditures. (The lockup is required because Erie County has ended an agreement whereby the city leased county facilities, and county staff, to hold prisoners until they appeared in court.) The members of Common Council in attendance had some questions for the administration officials on hand: Should we really be selling bonds to finance the purchase of an $18,000 fire escape? (Answer: Maybe so.) Wouldn’t it be cheaper to simply pay cash for items under $100,000? (Answer: It depends.) Can tree trimming and maintenance be paid for with capital funds, so that new trees don’t die of negligence? (Answer: No, but the city will try to buy more durable, high-quality trees this year, under direction of the new city forester, Andrew Rabb.)

But the questions that provoked the most discussion was aired by South District Councilman Mickey Kearns, who wanted to know two things: First, when would the city end its “debt diet,” the borrowing cap imposed as the result of the financial crisis of 2002, and borrow more money to address its crumbling infrastructure? (Answer: Not soon.)

Second, why does the city bond for projects and then fail to spend the money it has borrowed? Are the number used to fill out the four-year plans that accompany each year’s proposed capital budget merely placeholders, or do they reflect some sort of research and planning that assures that the city isn’t borrowing money it won’t be able to spend in a timely manner—money which therefore could be directed to some other pressing need?

Kearns is not the first to suggest that the four-year plans are less than reliable as guides to the city’s future intentions. Still, Public Works Commissioner Steve Stepniak insisted that his department did its best to ask for borrowing only for projects that could reasonably be completed within 18 months of the bond issue. Sometimes circumstances intervened, preventing a project’s undertaking. Sometime emergency bridge repairs don’t cost as much as the amount borrowed on that budget line—but isn’t it better to have too much money set aside than to shut down a bridge for lack of it?

In any case, Stepniak said that he’d requested $535,000 for a needs assessment study that he hoped would enable his department to make more informed and accurate spending plans in the future.

THOMAS FIRED BECAUSE OF HOYT OBSESSION? One of the more curious accusations that Human Resources Commissioner Karla Thomas has made as she tries either to save her job or to have her full contract paid out is that Mayor Byron Brown only fired her to bolster the Democratic primary campaign of North District Councilman Joe Golombek, an ally of the mayor, who challenged Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, whom the mayor has made his principal rival.

Brown says he fired Thomas for failing to purchase a death master index from the Social Security Administration, in the wake of an embarrassing story in the Buffalo News that revealed the city had spent millions on healthcare benefits to families of retired city workers after they had died. Brown ordered Thomas to purchase the index in January; Thomas says she ordered benefit manager Tracy Healy to do so, but it did not happen until August. Healy has left that job. Brown fired Thomas in September. As a municipal human resources commissioner, Thomas’ appointment lasts six years, and she has the right under state law to a public hearing to appeal her dismissal. Tuesday was the final day of testimony in front of hearing officer Michael A. Battle.

On Tuesday, Thomas said Brown had told her that the payment of benefits to dead retirees was hurting him politically. She said the mayor referred to a poll conducted in the Hoyt/Golombek race.

Brown fired Thomas on Thursday, September 2. Shortly before he did so, Golombek publicly announced that he believed Thomas should be fired and would file a resolution asking the mayor to fire her.

In an open letter to Brown first printed in the Buffalo Challenger, Thomas blames the mayor’s chief political consultant, Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, for her dismissal:

The timing of my termination (right before Joe Golombek’s primary against Sam Hoyt) speaks volumes about the real purpose behind your actions. You simply gave in to some heavy political pressure from people who had nothing to do with getting you re-elected.

Prior to Brown hiring her to head human resources for the city, Thomas had a job at the Erie County Water Authority and was president of Grassroots, the mayor’s political organization. They’ve been friends for years.

MAZIARZ AND PIGEON: Since we’re speculating: My guess is that George Maziarz’s bid to challenge Dean Skelos for State Senate Majority Leader (assuming the Republicans achieve the majority) is intended to leverage some sort of payoff for Maziarz. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that payoff included something for Steve Pigeon, who lost his state job when his patron, State Senator Pedro Espada, lost his primary in September. Maziarz and Pigeon work together closely. Pigeon won’t get far with Grisanti; Pigeon’s associate Gary Parenti was seen putting up signs for Antoine Thompson in Niagara Falls. There seems to have been some falling out between the Pigeonistas and Thompson, however; just days before the general election, Thompson was quoted in the Buffalo News accusing Pigeon of conspiring against him. Maybe Thompson hoped that Pigeon would direct more money into his campaign.

LOSING THOMPSON’S GIRLFRIEND: On Wednesday, the Buffalo News published an editorial titled “Voters speak up,” in which the paper’s editorial board enumerates Antoine Thompson’s failures and miscues. Among them: “He skipped a Senate session in February to hang out with his girlfriend in Jamaica. He had trouble recollecting key votes in which he said he voted one way but, in fact, voted another. He dramatically swelled the patronage staff for his office.”

Come again? I seem to recall that Thompson took his junket to Jamaica in the company of his chief of staff, Mark Boyd. By late morning, the column had been edited online, without acknowledgment to read: “He skipped a Senate session in February to hang out in Jamaica.”

SATURDAY’S CITIZENS: An energetic citizen could have spent dawn to dusk on Saturday engaged in community improvement. First, there were citywide tree-plantings, which brought out dozens of volunteers planting hundreds of trees. Then, around noon, there was a rally in Lafayette Square to protest the $4 million cut to the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system proposed by Erie County Executive Chris Collins. After that, there was “Aspirations and Inspirations,” a public forum on waterfront development hosted by impresario Mark Goldman. That forum was well attended: At least 500, maybe 600 people listened to Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces and developer Tony Goldman (Mark’s brother) as they discussed alternate visions for development of Buffalo’s Inner and Outer Harbors. One of the attendees was Jordan Levy, chair of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, which took its share of abuse in the afternoon’s proceedings.

YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST: The Niagara Gazette reported last Saturday that repaving work on Lewiston Road had fallen eight weeks behind schedule because of the radioactive materials found underneath the roadbed. The materials in some cases were 10 times as radioactive as studies had suggested that contractors should expect. We could have told Niagara Falls officials that this might happen.

In fact we did, most recently in May and in several articles over the past year. More on the subject on Friday, on AV Daily at

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