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The State of the City

Filed under: Good Ideas, News

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As reported in the Buffalo News, the Mayor is selling tickets to his State of the City Address scheduled for Thursday, January 29 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. The $35 charge gets you a chicken lunch, and the proceeds go to Mayor Brown’s Fund to Advance Buffalo.

In the News article, Attorney Peter A. Reese points out that both the official seal of the City of Buffalo and the CitiStat logo sit right at the top of the invitation, creating the impression that the event is a public function. But by all indications, it’s in fact intended to be a private function to raise money for Mayor Brown’s Fund to Advance Buffalo, a 501c3 organization created in 2006 “to raise funds and distribute such funds to charitable organizations operating in the City of Buffalo and in Support of Community Activities for the Betterment of the Residents of the City of Buffalo.”

According to the organization’s 2006 990 tax return (available by clicking here), as well as their 2007 990 tax return (available by clicking here), there are four officers. First Deputy Mayor Steve Casey is President, Corporation Counsel Alisa Lukasiewicz is Treasurer, Hodgson Russ Attorney and NFTA Board member Adam Perry is Vice President, and Dana Bobinchek is Secretary. In 2006, they raised $113,393 and listed $65,748 in “direct expenses other than fundraising expenses,” listing a net income of $47,759 including $114 in interest. That year, $4,048 was spent on legal fees and $48 went to bank fees, while only $6,500 went out as program service (unspecified, but hopefully noble)—adding up to $10,596 in total functional expenses. This left the charity with $37, 163 at the end of the first year.

According to the organization’s 2007 tax return, which was filed only two months ago on November 12, 2008 and also lists the same officers, they brought in $29,649, minus $645 in legal fees, $2,857 in postage and shipping, $1,812 in printing and publications, $1,915 on “other” expenses, $70 on dues (whatever that means). That adds up to $7,299 in total expenses, leaving the 501c3 with $22,350. Add the $37,163 left over from the year before and you arrive at $59,513 in assets at the end of 2007. It is interesting and bewildering to note that on schedule B of the 2007 form, only one contributor is listed: Erie County Medical Center to the tune of $10,000.

Information for 2008 is unavailable, and probably won’t be until they file their 2008 990 form—probably in November of 2009 if their past practices are any indication.

Looking at those first two years, we can guess that maybe close to $8,500 went to anything that might be considered “support of community activities for the betterment of the residents of the City of Buffalo”—and that’s a charitable reading of these public documents.

As for the upcoming State of the City Address, the organization is not being charged for rental of the big exhibit floor in the convention center. That part’s free, according to Paul Murphy at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Management Corp., the county-funded agency that runs the place. He says it’s typical for a big event like this one—over a thousand people are expected—as long as they’re ordering food. And according to Ryan Cote, who booked the event at the convention center, everyone who buys the $35 ticket will be treated to a chicken lunch that runs $16-$17 according to the BNCC menu (available by clicking here).

So, the mayor’s charity will be up around $20,000 by that afternoon, minus the cost of printing and mailing out all the invites (available by clicking here), and miscellaneous production expenses like renting a teleprompter and paying someone to run it.

I was told by secretary Bobinchek that only Peter Cutler can answer questions about the event, and about Mayor Brown’s Fund to Advance Buffalo. Cutler stopped talking to me after telling me yesterday that he knew where our conversation was headed. Surprised, I asked him where it was headed, and he quickly told me he didn’t know where it was headed. Some spokesman. And why is he the spokesman for the mayor in his elected capacity as well as the official spokesman for the mayor’s charity? Where do Cutler’s responsibilities end?

After placing several calls to Peter Cutler, Dana Bobinchek, Susan Gonzalez (who is an events coordinator at city hall and is involved with the Police Athletic League), Steve Casey, and various personalities at the County Executive’s office and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, I received a call out of the blue from Adam Perry—who is listed as Vice President of the mayor’s 501c3.

Perry told me that he was in fact the President of the organization, that Casey was Vice President, Aaron Siegel (Franklin Credit Solutions) was Treasurer, Bobinchek (city of Buffalo) was still Secretary, and Gonzalez, Sterling Kozlowski (Key Bank), Lukasiewicz, Tanya Perrin-Johnson (city of Buffalo), and Michael Seaman (city of Buffalo) are listed as members. He sent me a document stating this lineup was correct as of July 26, 2007, and you can see it by clicking here. Still, that contradicts what was filed on the 2006 and 2007 990s.

Short of having a list of good works that were done by Mayor Byron Brown’s Fund to Advance Buffalo in 2008, attendees at the 2009 State of the City Address don’t have much to feel warm and fuzzy about for their $35 donation. Cutler did tell me that I was welcome to attend for free as a member of the press, but I shouldn’t expect a meal. As for the rest of the citizens of Buffalo, there may still be hope that they will be granted admission to what should clearly be a civic function without donating to the mayor’s fund, but nothing’s official yet.


  • GetReal

    In defense of the Mayor’s charity. It is typical for Form 990 to be filed in the year following its form date. So, the 2007 form is really for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, which begins in October of 2007. Filing in November of 2008 is actually on time.

    The overhead that Artvoice identifies with the Mayor’s charity is fairly typical of a small fund exclusively dependent on fundraisers (i.e. it isn’t a nonprofit getting grants and foundation support). Anyone familiar with nonprofits of this sort realize that overhead related to fundraising is usually the biggest expenditure.

    With that said. Who would donate to a politician’s charity? It is what it is, but the donors make this choice fully aware that the money will end up going to some cause near and dear to the people behind the fund.

    This is really a lot of fuss about nothing (figuratively and literally).

  • RWilliams

    The fuss is not about the finances, though they seem sloppily done. The fuss is about the abuse of power by the Mayor. He shouldn’t being using city seals to collect money for his charity at a civic function. He also should allow people in to hear without being shaken down for his charity. So Mr. Get Real, do you understand why people are seeing a pattern of abuse of power with this Mayor.

  • Simon Magus

    THE STATE OF THE CITY?

    GIVE THEM A CALL

    THEY HAVE EVEN MANAGED TO GOOF UP THEIR PHONE LINES!

  • GetReal

    Explain what is sloppy about the finances. The organization is so small, there is little room for slop. Examine the Form 900 linked to this blog. I did. It is in order and clearly done. The charity’s accountant applied for an extension, and it was granted, the money is all accounted for. This is textbook on how to do it. The IRS would give them high marks for following the process. There were no penalities or fines by the IRS. What is the sloppy part? It is even typed, which is more than I can say for many Form 990s done by similar organizations in Buffalo.

    You may not like the Mayor, or disagree with him promoting the charity via the state of the city. But, in an ironic way, this is a great way to reduce fundraising costs and put more money on the streets. Anyone who does not want to attend the speech can watch it on TV and the media don’t have to buy tickets. So, there is not law being broken here. There may be abuses by the Mayor in other areas, but this is just nit picking.

    Go find some real issue to pursue. Learn from history. Nixon wasn’t impeached because he was a jerk to people or did some underhanded stuff, they got him on an actual crime. A real violation of the law. He tried to cover up watergate, etc…

    Where is the Mayor’s watergate? Raising money for charity is not a crime. If it was, then every jerk I know who hits me up for a donation to their pet project at the office Christmas part should be in jail, not to mention the countless charities who solicit donations in the mail or over the phone.

    If you don’t like the Mayor’s charity, then don’t contribute. If you don’t like the way he runs the city, don’t go to the state of the city address. It is just a propaganda speech anyway. So, write an editorial about the substantive issues you disagree with, vote for other candidates in elections, look for the real watergates.

  • RWilliams

    You are right. There are more important issues to look at. When I referred to sloppy, I was looking at a non profit that raises over $113,000,has operating expenses well over %60 and only gives out $6,500 for 2006. Very ineffective and bad management as far I can see. I am familiar with non- profits and how they operate. To me, this one does not have the betterment of Buffalo as a main goal but is there only to serve as a political tool for the Mayor.

  • GetReal

    Political tool. Yes. Sloppy, no. It is about the same as a lot of nonprofits. But, anyone can look up what the organization does and then decide if they want to contribute. It is all public information.