By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Terri Williams offered a gift to members of the Niagara Falls City Council Tuesday night.
During the public speaking portion of the council’s evening session, Williams placed a package of brown, paper lunch bags on the podium and suggested lawmakers start using them instead of using taxpayer money to buy meals at local restaurants on days when they hold bi-monthly meetings.
“If you don’t know what to do with them, ask the taxpayers, we all use them,” Williams said, referring to her brown-bag offering.
While her comments were directed at the entire council, they mirrored the frustration expressed by several speakers who came to city hall on Tuesday to decry the council majority’s decision to cut $30,000 in bed tax revenue originally earmarked for the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center in 2013.
For the second time in two weeks, more than a dozen people addressed the council, encouraging them to renew their support for the NACC. While they were fewer in number than the Feb. 4 meeting during which more than 100 people packed city hall, their message was the same: The NACC is too valuable to the community to lose and deserving of city funds to continue its operation.
“I’m quite frankly shocked,” said Charles LeGreca, a member of the NACC’s board of directors and a local chef. “The word that keeps going around in my head is embarrassed.”
Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and fellow members Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson Jr. voted during the Feb. 4 meeting to sever the city’s financial ties to the NACC as well as reduce its annual contributions to the Niagara Falls Block Club Council and Niagara Beautification Commission. All three said the move was needed to save the cash-strapped city money and to help curtail fiscal problems in the months ahead.
As was the case with a few other speakers, Williams expressed frustration about the move given the council’s continued use of taxpayer money to buy meals in between their afternoon agenda review sessions and evening meetings.
An analysis of expenditures by council members by the Gazette shows that four city lawmakers as well as at least two city attorneys continued to eat out on the taxpayers’ dime during last year’s department-wide freeze on discretionary spending. Records show the subsidized dinners — described by some of the city lawmakers who regularly attend them as a council “tradition” — have continued through the first part of 2013.
“You cut the items that effect the growth of the city, but kept your unnecessary personal perks,” Williams said. “I would like to remind you that, yes, you do make the rules. That is your job. And the rules need to be changed. That too is your job.”
Block club members, including long-time leaders Roger Spurback and Norma Higgs, came out to voice their displeasure with the council’s moves as well.
Higgs called on the council majority to begin to share in the community’s “sacrifice” by eliminating their “dining privileges” and reverse any previous resolutions that allow council members and other part-time city officials to receive money for opting out of the city’s medical insurance plan. Having obtained a copy of the most recent dinner bill of $174, Higgs suggested lawmakers were eating more than just “sandwiches,” a reference to a statement Choolokian made recently when asked about the council’s dinner expenses.
“How about appetizers, soup, salad, shrimp and veal parm?” she said. “I was able to do a little research and found that to be a strange definition of a sandwich.”
Jonathan Rogers, a Niagara Street resident who returned to the podium where he stood two weeks earlier to again heap praise upon the NACC, conceded that no matter what he said, members of the council majority were not going to change their minds about funding for the facility.
“If you guys don’t get it by now, there’s nothing I can say,” Rogers said. “I think that it’s an indication of a very shallow appreciation of what a civilized community requires to be a successful city.”
Rogers did ask the council majority a simple question: “What would the city do with the property if the old High School building that houses the NACC wasn’t there?”
“If you tear down the NACC, what have you got?” he said. “A few more acres of empty property to match all the other empty property you’ve got. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
While every speaker expressed support for the arts group and its work in the community, especially with the city’s youth, a few speakers offered praise for the council for being bold enough to cut funding to the community groups in order to save money for the city’s taxpayers.
“The council did an outstanding job in my opinion,” said Lewiston Road resident Don Supon.