The city's newly formed seven-member Financial Advisory Panel has held two meetings, elected its officers, and will hold its third meeting on April 21.
While the panel is being held out to the public by the council chairman, Andrew Touma and Mayor Paul A. Dyster as both key and possibly elemental to solving the city's fiscal problems, the Reporter remains skeptical as to the validity of that characterization.
After all, the resolution that brought the panel into existence forbids the panel from accessing "confidential" city finance records and related information.
Frankly we have no idea how this panel, no matter how professional and well-intended, will be able to solve the mystery of city finances without having total access to all finance records and the city's entire finance history.
Be that as it may, this column is going to modestly recommend the significant areas and issues that the panel should concentrate upon, at the outset, as it makes its way toward the fiscal truth in city hall.
The city's Financial Advisory Panel should:
Immediately determine the city budget deficit. As budget discussions took place last year that deficit ran, inexplicably, from a low of $4 million to a high of $9 million. What are the how and why for the wild fluctuation?
Reveal the city debt and post it on line. That debt would include all, and any, city debt along with a timeline of the municipal building payback in the same way a mortgage contract shows the life of a 30-year mortgage.
Get a copy of the May 2013 NYS Comptroller's audit of city finances and use it as the panel's operating bible. That audit went into depth as to the city's "structural deficit" and the audit revealed that, at the time, $1.4 million, or more, was unable to be located within the budget. Have those funds been discovered? Also, a second, confidential, element of that audit was performed, and it dealt with internal city hall finance program computer security. That confidential portion of the audit must be shared with the financial advisory panel.
Meet with representatives of the NYS Comptroller's Buffalo office. That meeting should be between NYS Comptroller staff and Financial Advisory Panel members, no city employees or elected officials, so that all and any questions can be asked by the panel and answered by the Comptroller's staff in confidence.
Meet with the Mayor and Council as soon as possible in order to lead them to the creation of a casino revenue-spending plan, a plan that would include a complete understanding as to how casino revenue can and cannot be used.
Study what the 2015 budget looked like when approved in December 2014 as opposed what it looks like after April 2015, when it is "opened" and money begins to "move around" from one line to the other. The annual April "opening of the budget" is a troubling aspect of city finances and it is shrouded in mystery.
Call for the posting of the casino revenue interest account on line alongside the casino expenditures.
Call for the posting of the bed tax account on line alongside the casino revenue expenditures and casino interest accounts.
Move as quickly as possible to post the city's entire budget "live" on line so that all transactions – expenditures, money in, money out, money transfers, debt payment, city investment and debt structure – can be viewed and monitored in real time.
In the end the Financial Advisory Panel should keep two words in mind as it goes about its work: Accountability and Believability.
Those two words lead to a third word that should always be top-of-mind when seeking answers to questions concerning city finance: Transparency.