BY TONY FARINA
Buffalo’s chief fiscal watchdog pulls no punches when describing the work his staff has done under his leadership to save city taxpayers money by refinancing old debt and rooting out wasteful spending, but South Buffalo’s Mark Schroeder may have more than numbers on his mind as he hints that a run for mayor next year is something he’s likely to consider seriously after this year’s November elections.
“I believe I have the right skill set to be mayor,” said Schroeder during a wide ranging interview this week in his 12th floor City Hall office citing his 25 years in the private sector before he began his elective career as a county legislator in 2002. In 2004, Schroeder won the first of four terms in the state Assembly where he was an independent lawmaker who, among other things, wrote “Amanda’s Law” which requires carbon monoxide detectors in all homes.
The current mayor, Byron Brown, has given no indication he is not running for re-election next year although he could not be reached for comment this week. Brown’s 10-year run as the city’s chief executive has been marked by major development initiatives but much of the credit certainly goes to Albany and Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has pumped millions into Buffalo after developer Carl Paladino trounced him in Western NY in the 2010 gubernatorial race.
Schroeder, if he runs, can be expected to challenge Brown on his record, noting that violence and unrest continues to be a major problem in several Buffalo neighborhoods far removed from the waterfront boom. Schroeder says he spends many hours visiting neighborhoods, and many times he hears the cries, ‘what about us,’ a reference to the divide between the Buffalo Billion success downtown fueled by Cuomo and the struggling neighborhoods where many residents live in crime-infested environments, particularly on Buffalo’s East Side.
But Schroeder knows he must communicate to residents about what he’s doing to help them and let them know that as comptroller, he has been a strong fiscal watchdog emphasizing government transparency and urging residents to get involved in improving city operations by unveiling a hotline (851-8799) where residents can anonymously report wrongdoing. He also launched Open Book Buffalo, an interactive tool on his website that allows citizens to see how the city is spending their tax dollars.
“Whether you want to know how much was spent on overtime in a certain department or how much the city spent with a particular law firm, Open Book Buffalo can give you the answer quickly and easily,: Schroeder said last December when Open Book was launched. “As a former member of the state legislature, I can assure you, anything that is done in secret is usually not in the best interests of taxpayers,” a pointed reference to the recent corruption scandals that have racked Albany.
Schroeder left the Assembly in 2011, winning election as Buffalo city comptroller where he has refunded $254 million in city school debt for a savings to the district of $24 million. His auditors, in one of the longest reviews in city history, found that National Grid had overcharged city taxpayers and his office has already recovered $1 million from the utility company with 14 more claims still pending.
When Schroeder first walked into the comptroller’s office back in January of 2012, he asked how many employees he had under him in the Department of Audit and Control.
“I was told we had 35 employees but only one Certified Public Accountant (CPA),” he said, adding his department now has nine full time CPA’s on staff.
Schroeder believes his staff upgrades have helped improve protections for taxpayers, citing two bond upgrades over the last four years (lower borrowing costs) and record fund balances to go along with hard-hitting audits that have found, among other things, that the former operator of the Erie Basin Marina had been shortchanging taxpayers, a discovery that led to an arbitration panel eventually awarding the city 198,144 plus nine percent interest as a result of the rent underpayment.
“We’re competent, focused, respectful, but not afraid,” says Schroeder adding “we’re going to do the right thing no matter who is involved.”
Schroeder, at 60, seems well prepared to make a run for the city’s top job, already winning two citywide elections and putting together a well-oiled and finely tuned fiscal oversight department for city government, warning several times about Mayor Brown’s reliance on reserves and uncertain revenues in putting together the city budget and four-year plan.
Schroeder is particularly proud of the Vision Statement he unveiled this week that was developed by the employees of his department. It reads: To advance as a world class financial organization by unleashing our full potential.”
It appears that Schroeder’s efforts are paying off in more than recovered dollars and reductions in wasteful spending. His Popular Annual Financial Report, a simplified version of the city’s audited financial statements, was cited for being user friendly and last year, the first time it was published, it received an award for outstanding achievement in financial reporting from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada.
The footsteps that Mayor Brown may be hearing might be coming from his own building, from the fiscal watchdog overseeing city government from the 12th floor who may be interested in moving downstairs to the second floor. As we said, Schroeder said he will begin to seriously assess a possible candidacy after the current election cycle ends in November. A lot could change between now and November, and the presidential election could influence local political decisions. But Schroeder is definitely on the prowl.