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Mayor's proposed 2018-19 budget calls for first property tax hikes in 13 years

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

For the past dozen years, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has delivered budget proposals that held the line on property taxes or, in some cases, offered slight decreases. That will change in his thirteenth budget, a proposed $513.6 million spending plan for fiscal year 2018-19 that raises residential and commercial tax rates as well as garbage user fees.

The proposed budget is a nearly three percent increase over the fiscal 2017-18 budget. Mayor Brown, while delivering his budget proposal in his City Hall office Tuesday afternoon, told an audience of department heads and Common Council members and other guests that Buffalo has become a different city than 12 years ago, when it was under a hard Control Board and had low credit ratings. But he then explained that the rising costs of health care, pensions and contractually-obligated raises, all play a part in increased overall spending.

"Our fiscally conservative budgeting and pro-growth tax and free policies helped stimulate our economy and put us back on a path toward prosperity," Brown said. "Today, it requires a realignment between the real costs and revenues needed to ensure the effective delivery of city services."

Residential property taxes would increase by 3.4 percent while commercial rates would go up by 5.5 percent. 

Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who was among the guests, was asked about concerns over the additional commercial tax burden.

"It's time for us to do our due diligence. I don't want to comment off-the-cuff because I don't know what these numbers are looking at," he said. "What I do know is that people want police services. They want to make sure their city is safe. They want the garbage picked up. They want these services. At the end of the day, we have to pay for them."

Pridgen pointed out that the mayor's budget remains only a proposal and lawmakers will not just rubber-stamp it as it is. 

In addition to increased property taxes, the proposed budget also increases the garbage user fee and introduces a new Public Facility Maintenance and Security surcharge. The latter would raise money to cover the costs of maintaining and protecting city-owned venues attended by people living outside the city, including sports arenas, theaters and other cultural institutions. This surcharge will be applied to ticket purchases.

The budget also offers property owners an opportunity to earn a tax credit they'll lose under federal tax code reforms. Brown explained that recently enacted state legislation allows municipalities to set up a system by which taxpayers could give money instead to a publicly-established "charity fund."

"This law allows us to create a Charitable Giving Fund, which residents can use to pay their property taxes, if they exceed the federal cap on deductions," he said."

Passage of a local law is needed to enact the Charitable Giving Fund. Money collected would support education, parks, cultural institutions, youth programs and other services. Brown vowed to commit the first $200,000 raised toward education.

The mayor's budget provides nearly $71 million to schools while renews its commitment to the Say Yes to Education program but holding its allocation at half a million dollars.

This disappoints the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, whose leaders urged the mayor to increase school spending by one million dollars. 

The new budget proposal also provides half a million dollars for police officer body cams in three districts, and funds the hiring of 60 new officers. The city will also train 60 new firefighters. It also leaves alone the city's "rainy day" fund, which city leaders say it currently at $38.7 million.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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