Tuesday, July 6, 2010

WNY Media Offers Observations About the Niagara River Greenway

The City of Buffalo finds many ways to FAIL. They can’t hire a qualified police chief in a transparent matter. They can’t partner with a national low income housing firm without demanding kickbacks like a petulant child. And the only way they help an urban farm is get out of the way, when everything in their being wants to restrict and stop. One would think all the ways to FAIL had been taken. Oh, you naive soul. No, now we can’t even spend our own money.

On this page I have previously tried to make sense of the forgotten and neglected Niagara River Greenway Commission. A quick refresher: as part of the New York Power Authority relicensing agreement, $9 million a year is available to be spent on park, tourist, and environmental projects all along the Niagara River, from Buffalo to Fort Niagara. This being New York, however, nothing is easy and simple. The Commission, created by state law, is charged with planning and promotion functions. However, they spend none of the money. That is left to four “standing committees,” made up various civic and political leaders. The Commission declares a certain project (rehabbing La Salle Park, for instance) to be “consistent,” and then the standing committee for that project spends the money.

These standing committees display various levels of competence. While all organized by the New York Power Authority, they show various abilities to even update their websites. I am willing to give credit where it is due: the Ecological Standing Committee is the most organized, with project statuses and updates listed, and even a helpful map of project locations (your humble correspondent requested such web-based updates at a Commission meeting last year – coincidence? Probably.

But back to the FAIL. The Buffalo and Erie County committee has thus far been completely unable to get out of its own way. It is made up of only four members: Kathy Konst (Erie County), Sue Gonzalez (Buffalo), Robert Daly (NYPA), and Anne Joyce (Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy). And yet this four member committee has spent less than 5% of the monies allocated to it so far in over three years of existence.
Tracking the money and dysfunction is challenging because of the incomplete records on the website: only one annual report is listed, and no meeting minutes are available for over a year in 2009-2010. But from discussions with local sources, in addition to the public records, the following emerges:

Kathy Konst and Sue Gonzalez are new to the game. They first appear in public records on February 23rd, 2010 in meeting minutes. Before that Holly Sinnott (previous Erie County planner) and Karen Fleming (City Division of Urban Affairs) were their organization’s representatives, and in their two and half year tenure, not a thing happened. The 2009 Annual Report for the Committee cheekily describes it this way:
The Committee began organizing in 2007 and in the spring of 2008 adopted Committee Protocols. One of the Agreement Commitments was for the Committee to appoint a Trustee. The process consumed a great deal of time, the Committee entered into a Trustee agreement with the Bank of America in September 2009 [sic].

That’s right – it took half a year to agree on the ground rules, and two years to find a bank account. Its not that the committee members disagreed on philosophy, which projects to fund, or anything remotely substantial. They couldn’t figure out who should sign the checks and spend the money. After two and half years of wrangling, Bank of America was brought on to keep the money, and the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo to manage it. In 2009, these services cost $20,191 – $5,500 in bank fees to BofA, and $14,651 in project management fees to CFGB. To watch six projects that haven’t happened yet.

Yes, that’s right, it gets better. Once the committee put most of its shit in same box (October 2009, according to the report), NYPA agreed to transfer over $6 million for 2007, 2008, and 2009. Out of that $6 million, the committee has agreed how to spend $3.6 million of it. And how much of that cash has actually been spent? $360K – 5% of the total handed to it by the relicensing agreement. $340K to BOPC to get started planning two projects, and $20K in fees referenced above. $5.6 million still sits in that BofA account, as of January 2010, presumably racking up banking fees.

There are projects announced in 2008 that still haven’t seen a dime, not because the money isn’t available, but because of general incompetence. The Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a generally reputable and forward looking group, has finally managed to move ahead on planning projects for Scajaquada Creek, Riverside Park, and La Salle Park. Grand Island is still waiting on money for Fisherman’s Landing. But what’s the hurry – its not like Buffalo is a poor city or in the midst of a national recession.

Our community pays attention to funny things. $250K for a failed restaurant makes tons of news. Colin Dabkowski at the Buffalo News writes weekly columns on the tragedy of $5M in county (non)spending on arts and culturals. But $9 million of waterfront spending on a wide swath of Western New York gets barely a yawn? The mismanagement of our regional resources and lack of coherent attention span is astounding.

The WNYMedia post is available HERE.

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