By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — It has become somewhat of a tradition over the years.
City lawmakers spend part of their time between afternoon agenda review sessions and evening meetings dining out at area restaurants.
Records on file with the city controller’s office show the bi-monthly meals are financed by Niagara Falls’ taxpayers. A sampling of recent bills submitted for reimbursement by council members show their meal-time choices range from dinner salads and bowls of soup costing a few dollars each to plates of shrimp penne and veal cutlet that are closer to the $20 range.
Records show at least four city lawmakers and two city attorneys continued enjoying meeting-day meals following last April’s council decision to impose a freeze on discretionary spending in all departments.
City lawmakers say the money they’ve spent on meals is modest relative to the city’s overall budget.
They also argue the meals aren’t out of line, considering the volume of work done on what amounts to a part-time salary.
“I think it’s a reasonable amount of money for 52 weeks of the year,” Councilman Sam Fruscione said.
Records show the council accumulated a $3,436 dinner tab during the spending freeze which lasted from April 2 through Dec. 31, 2012.
During the time period in question, the bulk of the meals involved current Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and fellow council members Fruscione, Charles Walker and Robert Anderson Jr. as well as Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson and First Deputy Corporation Counsel Thomas O’Donnell. Some meetings have also included other invited guests, including, most recently, council legal advisor Mort Abramowitz.
Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti attended them as well prior to the imposition of the spending freeze.
“I stopped going because we were putting a spending freeze on and we were eating dinner on the public’s dime,” Grandinetti said.
Council members who regularly attend the dinners noted that such meals have been covered by the city for years. They also suggested that because the meals are relatively low in cost they are not the type of items the council and Mayor Paul Dyster’s administration were looking to control through the spending freeze.
Choolokian argued that he and other lawmakers put in full-time hours despite only being paid $12,000. He described the Gazette’s questions about the meals as “nickel and diming.”
“It’s less than minimum wage,” he said. “I think that if we wanted to point fingers we could look at a lot of things the mayor is doing.”
Anderson also bristled at questions about the council’s dining habits, saying there are other areas of the city budget that are far more pressing.
“It’s a joke,” he said. “You’re talking about chump change.”
Anderson also pointed to the council members’ part-time salary, saying that for the council to get a meal between sessions is a small perk for a very tough job.
“Eight grand is not a lot of money when you’re spending on gas and telephone bills,” Anderson said.
The council bought meals from three local restaurants last year, including the Como, Donatello’s Restaurant and the Waldorf Niagara, with the funds being spent out of the council’s budgeted line for “local meetings,” according to the financial records.
Fruscione said all council meals have occurred at restaurants in the Falls.
“It’s a good way to reinvest in locally owned businesses,” he argued.
Grandinetti said she didn’t want to “pick on” the other council members who continue to attend the dinners, but said she feels that giving up the perk is a gesture of leadership and the right thing to do under the financial circumstances facing the city.
“The best way to get people on board with a plan is to lead by example,” she said.
Fruscione claims Grandinetti still has other council members order take-out from the restaurant for her every once in a while. He suggested the real reason she stopped going to the dinners is more personal in nature.
“She doesn’t like us,” Fruscione said. “It’s as simple as that.”
SPENDING SERIES The Gazette is taking an in-depth look at the spending habits of top city officials. The final story in the series will appear in Friday's edition and focus on whether it's legal for a majority of council members to gather for dinner, unannounced, at area restaurants. Look for the entire four-part series online. WHAT'S FOR DINNER? Below is an example of the council's taxpayer-funded dining habits. The expenses in question were part of a $174 bill submitted by council members for reimbursement through the city following a meal at the Como restaurant between sessions of the Feb. 4 council meeting. The list of items purchased was as follows: • A fried calamari appetizer • A hot peppers appetizer • A bowl of soup • A dinner salad • A small broccoli parmesan • Two chicken parmesan entrees with extra mozzarella cheese • One veal cutlet entree with a side of fettuccini alfredo sauce • One shrimp platter entree with a side of fettuccini alfredo sauce • One penne vodka sauce entree with shrimp • Four coffees • A pitcher of soda • A $23 tip, roughly 15 percent