What to Ask the Candidates for Buffalo Mayor

by / Mar. 1, 2017 12am EST

Ciminelli Development Corporation recently announced plans to construct 133 new single-family houses in a wetland area just north of the SUNY Buffalo campus in the Town of Amherst.

Montante’s Uniland Development Corporation recently announced plans to construct 171 new single-family houses and patio homes in the greenfield area just south of the New York State Thruway in the Town of Lancaster.

The US Census estimates that the population of the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro area remains essentially flat, with a slight decline to about 1.13 million—almost exactly the same population as in 1970.

Of the nearly 60,000 building permits for housing issued by municipalities between 1980 and 2015, over 58,000 were issued in the suburbs, with fewer than 2,000 issued in the cities of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport, Tonawanda, North Tonawanda, and Lackawanna.

The US Census estimates that the population of Buffalo itself is hovering around 260,000, which is down from around 292,000 in 2000.

The total taxable value of real estate in the City of Buffalo in 1915 was $6.6 billion, or about 16 percent of the total of $40.2 billion in Erie County. (In 2010, Buffalo’s real estate was worth about 17.5 percent of the Erie County total.

In sum, suburban sprawl continues to shuffle population from the urban core to the suburbs.

Here’s what to ask the candidates running for Mayor of Buffalo in 2017: Are you powerless to stop suburban sprawl, population stagnation, and the relative decline of Buffalo’s wealth?

Employment and workforce

The Current Population Survey counts 73,000 African-Americans over the age of 16 in Buffalo, amounting to about 38 percent of the city’s total population. Of that number, 25,605 are males between the ages of 20 and 64. Of that number, 15,543—just under 61 percent—were employed in 2015.

The African-American population of the region is concentrated within the boundaries of the City of Buffalo, which contains the Census tracts with the lowest household income and the lowest workforce participation in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro area.

Here’s what to ask the candidates running for mayor of Buffalo in 2017: Are you powerless to increase the number of employed African-American men?

Changes in the regional workforce

The data show that the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro workforce peaked at 568,000 in 2000, fell to 544,400 in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, and rebounded to 566,700 in 2016.

Here are the employment sectors that have grown since 2009:

  • Education and health services: 97,700 in 2016, up from 91,600
  • Financial activities: 34,500 in 2016, up from 30,900
  • Leisure and hospitality: 59,000 in 2016, up from 50,800
  • Manufacturing: 51,000 in 2016, up from 49,900
  • Construction and natural resources: 21,800 in 2016, up from 19,800
  • Other services: 24,400 in 2016, up from 23,900
  • Trade, transportation, and utilities: 108,000 in 2016, up from 100,400.

But the sectors where this region has lost employment are also significant:

  • Manufacturing jobs are up from the trough of 2009, but manufacturing accounted for over 90,000 jobs as recently as 1990.
  • Jobs in information technology is down to 7,600 from a peak of over 10,000 in 2000.
  • Government jobs have dropped overall, mainly because of a drop in federal employment.

Overall, the sectors that have recovered are the ones that rely most heavily on sources of business that many observers expect to change, especially:

  • The drop in Canadian cross-border traffic may continue to be a significant ongoing drag on both retail sales and hospitality;
  • The Trump Administration’s plan to deregulate financial services by repealing significant portions of the Dodd-Frank banking reforms may reduce the need for as many as 1,000 executives in the financial services industry here;
  • The Congressional hostility to Medicaid, already a prominent feature of the 2017 budget, may hit the healthcare sector here hard—especially because as many as 250,000 of the total Erie County population of 922,000 relies on Medicaid for healthcare; and
  • Little if any of President Trump’s proposed increases in spending for the Department of Defense will arrive in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro economy, while his proposed reductions in Federal spending on environmental protection, waterways restoration, and general services certainly will.

Here’s what to ask the candidates running for mayor of Buffalo in 2017: Are you powerless to shape the regional response to changing long-term trends in federal spending, international commerce, and the shape of the regional workforce?

What mayors do

The City of Buffalo does not have direct control of the Buffalo Board of Education, whose overall budget is more than twice as large as that controlled by the Mayor and the Common Council.

The City of Buffalo’s elected officials are only able to propose and enact balanced budgets because of ongoing infusions of cash from the State of New York. That has been the case for more than a decade, but most pointedly since the imposition of a Fiscal Stability Authority by the State of New York because of Buffalo’s effective insolvency after 2004.

What the Mayor of Buffalo has actual control over has shrunk over the years. There’s a grab-bag of quasi-independent entities that handle water, sewer, and housing matters. The Mayor participates in, but does not direct, the Regional Economic Development Council. Managing downtown public spaces is mainly a matter for the Business Improvement District known as Buffalo Place. The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, a New York State entity, decides quite independently of City Hall what happens with Canalside. The City’s list of unique functions has been radically reduced even since the post-Depression changes that regionalized social services, libraries, healthcare, and income-support programs to Erie County.

So without any say-so over regional land use, education, health, water, social services, or sole executive authority over economic development, and with the State of New York’s control board essentially acting at its discretion whenever it decides to tighten or loosen fiscal controls, the Office of Mayor is left to supervise public safety and streets through oversight of the Police, Fire, and Public Works departments.

So at this point in Buffalo’s history, a reasonable question to ask the candidates for Mayor of Buffalo is, actually, this: Why does this office continue to exist?

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State a director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.