The Politics Of Repairing Streets And Sidewalks

According to a recent HUD Inspector General Audit, the City of Buffalo improperly used federal funds for public improvement projects such as street paving and sidewalk repairs.

The audit which I learned about through a blog post by Investigative Post, addressed whether the City of Buffalo:
1) administered its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program effectively, efficiently and economically in accordance with applicable rules and regulations;
2) expended funds for eligible activities that met a national objective of the program.

The CDBG program has three national objectives:

– Benefit low-and moderate-income persons
– Aid in preventing or eliminating slums or blight
– Address conditions that pose a serious and immediate threat to the health or welfare of the community

One of the many criticisms of the Inspector General was that public improvement projects like street paving and sidewalk repairs were not based on a plan which established goals and needs of the community. Instead of determining the City’s overall infrastructure needs, the City in 2009 distributed $520,000 of CDBG infrastructure funds equally to the City’s nine Common Council districts. City Councilmembers at their discretion directed what streets the Department of Public Works should pave in their district. The Inspector General concern is that perhaps the need in one Council district was greater than another.

While the Council inserted themselves (and continues to do so) into how street and sidewalk funds are spent, the Inspector General pointed out that according to the City’s own policies the Common Council is to be advisory only and does not have the authority to dictate how CDBG funds are to be used by the Department of Public Works.

This simple issue of how should street and sidewalk repairs be completed gets to the heart of the role of City Councilmembers. Is it the role of a City Council to set overall goals and objectives for City Departments through the adoption of policies and procedures? Should City Councilmembers decide what streets and sidewalks get repaired in their district or should that be left to the Department of Public Works to determine?

Is it realistic to expect City Councilmembers elected by district to prioritize the expenditure of tax dollars by need in a way that is unequal and may result in their district receiving less funds than another?

Lastly, if it is impossible for City Councilmembers to prioritize the repair of streets and sidewalks from a city-wide perspective, how can we possibly accomplish goals that are bigger and perhaps more important?

Perhaps this one issue explains why Buffalo is the third poorest City in the nation. The politics of repairing streets and sidewalks is just one example of how hard it is to exercise leadership in Buffalo that is bold and big picture in its approach.

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