Ithaca College Quarterly 2004/4
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Tom Baker, far left, with Erie County executive Joel Giambra, former New York State comptroller H. Carl McCall, and Buffalo mayor Anthony Masiello

Thomas E. Baker '65 has a tough job pulling his city, Buffalo, out of fiscal crisis.

by Gary E. Frank

When Thomas E. Baker '65 ended his 33-year career at Price Waterhouse, he looked forward to returning to western New York and devoting his energies to public service as chief executive officer of the John R. Oishei Foundation.

"My wife and I raised our family here. I was certainly successful in my professional career here; this had become home for us," says Baker, who returned to Buffalo in 1998 after spending the last two years of his tenure with the firm in its national office in Stamford, Connecticut. "I felt it was my opportunity to give back to the community."

Running the Oishei Foundation has afforded Baker ample opportunity to put that principle into practice. He oversees the annual distribution of more than $12 million to support a variety of efforts in education, medical research, human services, the arts, and culture in the greater Buffalo region. But the scope and impact of his community service took a dramatic turn in 2003, when New York governor George Pataki appointed Baker to chair the nine-member Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority.

As with other "rust belt" cities, Buffalo's fiscal problems are deeply rooted in the decline of manufacturing jobs and a city population -- 288,000 -- that is half of what it was 50 years ago, even as the greater region's population has remained relatively stable.

"When people move out of a city like Buffalo, they don't take the infrastructure with them," says Baker. "Consequently, that leaves a smaller population to support the costs of maintaining the infrastructure."

The state's second-largest city had kept itself barely solvent since the 1970s with a combination of state assistance, budget cuts, and the sale of municipal assets such as Buffalo International Airport, which was sold to a state transportation authority. But by 2003 the city's finances were in such dire shape that the state legislators decided to act.

They created the BFSA, basing its jurisdiction and power on that of the control board that supervised New York City's budget in the 1970s when that city was in economic crisis. "The expectation within the financial community back then had been that Buffalo was right behind New York City," Baker recalls. "Somehow, Buffalo managed to hold it off until last year."

The news that Baker was even being considered to chair the BFSA was greeted with wide community enthusiasm because of his analytical talents as an accountant and long record of volunteer service, according to Michael Battle '77, U.S. attorney for western New York.

"No one could think of anyone better for the job," says Battle, who met Baker through their common involvement in community organizations. "Many people were surprised Tom would take it, even though he's not one to shy away from a task, because he was already making a big contribution to the community through the Oishei Foundation. It's a win-win situation for the community that he took this on."

But since Baker was named to head the BFSA, the authority has taken drastic measures that affect municipal employees, including a wage freeze, job cuts, and the limiting of health insurance options. Not everyone views Baker's service as "win-win" anymore. Five unions representing municipal employees filed suit in federal court in September to overturn the wage freeze. Unions representing school employees filed a similar suit earlier in the year, and the BFSA is appealing a successful challenge to the wage freeze by the police union.

"[The unions] are stakeholders in this, too, so we have to deal with them, but it's not easy by any stretch," Baker says.

"He's been accused by the unions of being out of touch," says Rich Newberg '69, a senior correspondent for the local CBS affiliate who has covered Buffalo's fiscal travails. "But I certainly haven't seen that to be the case whenever I've interviewed him. He sees the bigger picture, which is that this city has to change in order to survive. He's cool under fire. He always tries to present a rational perspective in any given situation."

The budget authority of the BFSA includes the city's $650 million school budget. Because that budget isn't likely to grow, the BFSA has to look for ways to reduce inefficiencies and redirect to the classroom any savings that are realized. "The shame of it is that, despite that expenditure, our schools don't perform well," Baker says. "In the city we have superb architecture, wonderful housing stock, a beautiful waterfront, and most of the region's cultural resources. Unfortunately, a major reason not to live in the city is the school system. The most important thing for us to do is turn around the schools. As much as we're a fiscal stability authority, we can't just cut corners to balance the budget. We've got to look at how we can do things better, smarter, more cost effectively, and yield better results for the children."

The demands of chairing the BFSA have required that Baker split his time with his duties at the Oishei Foundation, leaving little time for other community activities, not to mention his family, which includes two grown children and a nine-year-old granddaughter. Despite the burdens of leading the BFSA and the often negative attention that comes with it, Baker views his responsibilities in a similar light to his duties at the Oishei Foundation, in which his focus is officially on giving back to the community in which he lives.

"This community has provided great opportunities for me and my family, and I want to see it move ahead," Baker says, "which it won't be able to do if it doesn't get its fiscal house in order." Tough as that job is, the man in charge seems determined to make it happen.

Photo by Harry Scull Jr. -- The Buffalo News, 2003

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