Niagara Gazette — Seth Piccirillo, the director of the city’s Community Development department, is urging city lawmakers to submit proposed amendments to his budget quickly.
Piccirillo, who had received proposed revisions to his department’s budget outline only from Councilman Charles Walker, asked the council to submit any of their proposed budget amendments at Monday’s council meeting so that his department could put the proposed budget out for a week of public comment before a final council vote on the spending plan.
“If there are any further council revisions to that budget we’d like to discuss them now to allow for proper public comment,” Piccirillo said.
Councilman Sam Fruscione then accused Piccirillo of trying to force council members to discuss their revisions publicly while Walker was able to meet with Community Development staff behind closed doors.
“Were the other amendments to the budget done publicly too?” Fruscione said to Piccirillo.
Piccirillo submitted a series of email invitations to all council members to meet and discuss the Community Development budget beginning in May.
The message included a schedule for public meetings where input would be solicited from citizens in an effort to shape the budget, part of a plan that Piccirillo argues makes for a more transparent process.
The original draft of the $2.2 million Community Development Block Grant budget — funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — was submitted to all council members at the end of July.
Piccirillo was denied a request to present on the proposed budget at the Sept. 3 council meeting, where the item was tabled.
Council Chief of Staff Kevin Ormsby responded to Piccirillo’s email request, saying Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian told him that Choolokian was “unable to fit” the presentation on the agenda.
There were no presentations scheduled for that meeting.
Piccirillo has since sent multiple emails to council members reminding them of his offer to meet and discuss the budget.
“I’ve requested to meet with you several times and I’d be happy to do that,” he said.
Choolokian suggested the council be prepared to submit any further revisions by the next council meeting on Oct. 15 so that Community Development could then go out for public comment the following week.
“We’ll let you have public comment after our next council meeting,” Choolokian said.
Picirillo accepted Choolokian’s offer, but remains worried about meeting HUD’s Nov. 15 deadline for the application.
“It’s not like this gets approved by the council and tomorrow we send it FedEx,” Piccirillo said. “We need to change our application to meet the projects and the funding levels that are approved.”
Last year’s block grant budget process also became contentious, with final approval from the council delayed by disagreements between lawmakers over the projects to be funded by the federal money.
“Last year we were days before the deadline,” Piccirillo said. “It was submitted on Nov. 15. That’s not good business.”
But Walker, the only council member to meet with Community Development staff and submit revisions so far, said he is dissatisfied with the process this year as well.
Walker and his colleagues are not used to Piccirillo’s proactive stance on the budget process, as in the years before Piccirillo was hired the council members played a bigger role in the process, he said.
“Council makes amendments based on community input that the council gets and then they create a final budget,” Walker said.
Walker said that despite sitting down with Piccirillo not all of his recommended amendments were included.
“The council members who spend time with these organizations and these community groups out in the community have a better idea of what’s going on than someone who’s never out there or doesn’t know more about these programs than what’s on paper in black and white,” Walker said.
Choolokian said he understands the time limits that Community Development is up against, but that he would like to take the time to put out a good budget.
“I don’t want to rush something where people are unhappy or there’s different groups that are being neglected,” Choolokian said.Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257