India Walton is running for mayor, aiming to dethrone Byron Brown, who’s seeking a record fifth term. She is far from the ideal candidate, lacking the experience in government you’d like to see in a candidate seeking executive office. It would be one thing for Walton to enter politics as a legislative backbencher; it’s another to be managing a city with a $500 million budget and a workforce of nearly 2,700.
Walton, then, is a bit of an unknown. On the other hand, we know all about Brown.
Consider his track record:
Mismanagement of city finances: Brown inherited a hard control board that socked away $166 million in reserves. Since the control board went soft in 2012, Brown has burned through more than $100 million of those reserves to plug budget deficits. Spending has not been the problem. The major problems have been Brown’s poor budget forecasting—he keeps counting on revenue that doesn’t materialize—and his refusal to raise property taxes, which the city has done only once during his time in office. The result: budget deficits and the city’s continued reliance on state aid, which accounts for thirty percent of the city’s revenues, to balance its books.
Failure to reform the police department: The problem isn’t limited to police misconduct. The department has poor relations with the minority community and a middling track record of solving crime: its homicide clearance rate is pathetically poor. Brown made no effort to reform the department until anti-racism protests last summer and the steps he’s taken since fall far short of what’s necessary. Most telling is his failure to even try to negotiate changes in the city’s contract with the Police Benevolent Association, which denies the department’s command of many essential management rights. The result: it’s difficult to discipline bad behavior, and seniority, rather than competency, dictates assignments and promotions, including key command positions.
Targeting of vulnerable people to raise revenue: The police department’s now disbanded Strike Force and Housing units set up traffic checkpoints, primarily in low-income neighborhoods, and doled out tons of traffic tickets. The mayor then got the Common Council to go along with imposing fifteen different fines and fees to make those tickets more lucrative. In response to last summer’s protests, the Common Council scaled back those fines and fees.
Targeting of everyone to raise revenue: That would be the speed cameras set up around twenty city schools to catch drivers going over fifteen mph during school hours. The cameras have ticked off a lot of people and ought to be Brown’s Fort Makowski—the bone-headed move to wall off McKinley Square by then-mayor Stan Makowski, which played a role in his election loss in 1977.
Failure for the longest time to address lead poisoning: Hundreds of inner-city kids every year are diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning is a life sentence that can result in learning, health, and behavioral problems. For years, Brown refused to tackle the problem until the city finally adopted a good but incomplete plan last November. It remains to be seen if City Hall successfully executes it; there’s reason to be skeptical.
Failure to address poverty: Buffalo is one of the nation’s poorest cities, but the mayor has never seriously attempted to craft a strategy to help lift people out of poverty or improve the neighborhoods they live in.
Failure to invest in infrastructure and public buildings: Earlier in Brown’s tenure, the city commissioned a study that determined city-owned facilities—libraries, pools, community centers, City Hall itself—required more than $600 million worth of improvements, much of it to compensate for decades of neglect. The city has done little of the necessary work. There’s also a backlog of needed infrastructure improvements: streets, bridges, sewers, water lines.
Last year, Brown did earmark more than $1 million to upgrade his offices in City Hall—including new digs for his ever-growing public relations team—which says something about his priorities.