Niagara Gazette

August 15, 2013

Town officials talk taxes

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — TOWN OF NIAGARA - When you're the smallest town, population-wise at least, in Niagara County, but have the needs of a large town due to an abundance of commercial property, a financial disconnect can develop between what services are provided and how they're funded.

Such is the world the Town of Niagara has come to know. On one hand, it's home to the Fashion Outlets of Niagara and the shopping district up and down Military Road. Those stores pull in a majority of sales tax dollars Niagara County collects due to heavy tourist traffic.

But there's the other side, where a police department is being operated, highway, water and sewer departments are pushed to limits to meet high traffic and usage demands. Funding these expensive operations rely on revenues the town doesn't see coming in the long-term future, at least not in a high enough supply to keep up with increasing costs. So some on the Niagara Town Board are looking to make some changes.

"We can either make some small changes now or face some rather big changes later down the road," Deputy Supervisor Danny Sklarski said during a work session Thursday. He's proposing the town investigate some downsizing of town personnel or face some consequences in the future.

Consequences like a general town tax residents would have to burden, one currently not in existence. It's one of the big changes he alluded to in his statement opening discussion of the topic.

With a declining population, spurred lately by the loss of Sabre Park residents moved as part of a planned expansion of the outlet mall, even a town-wide tax might not be capable of accomplishing the needs of the town, given the level just estimated for the upcoming state-wide property tax cap all towns must deal with.

Supervisor Steve Richards said the original 2 percent figure is likely to be closer to 1.6 percent. It would make creating a new tax even more difficult.

His solution to the town's distant problems would involve creating a community council capable of diagnosing issues and finding solutions with the town's best interests in mind.

"I think we need to create a citizen committee with several citizens on it, maybe with a couple councilmen, who have the town's best interest at heart," he said.

In addition to worrying about revenues, he also brought up the possibility of combining some upper-level positions in hopes of saving some significant money.

Richards used the highway, water and sewer departments as an example in his scenario, where he proposed possibly dissolving the three and creating a single department of public works. The move would need to be flushed out more before implemented, but would see two superintendents combined into one and allow town employees to be cross-trained in all departments, he said.

Not everyone on the board is in favor of constantly cutting. Councilman Rob Clark questioned the town's insistence in cutting from each department every single year, a move he said has been all-too-common in his seven years serving taxpayers.

"One question I get asked a lot is how can we expect to provide the same level of services year after year when we keep cutting 2 percent from our budget every year," he said. "It's difficult to keep cutting if we want to provide (police protection, the highway department and other services)."

Of course, the entire board is really hoping the town can convince the county legislature to provide the town with more sales tax revenue, which is currently divided by population. With the lowest population, Niagara sees the smallest amount.

The board's been looking to set up a meeting with representatives about this issue for a while, which may occur soon, Richards said.

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.