By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette —
The city's 2013 budget has been adopted with no tax increase and minimal cuts to services.
The city council sustained 12 of Mayor Paul Dyster's 39 vetoes to budget amendments, putting $437,000 of the $3.1 million in cuts that would have resulted from the 150 amendments back into the budget.
Under the adopted budget, the 2013 tax levy will be $28.1 million, coming in at $125,000 more than last year. The homestead property tax rate will be $17.66 per $1,000 of assessed value, virtually unchanged from 2012, and the non-homestead tax rate will be $30.45 per $1,000 of assessed value, 95 cents less than last year.
Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said Councilman Glenn Choolokian's budget expertise and the hard work of all council members secured a budget that was balanced without tax increases.
"It's shown that we pretty much had a unified council working behind us and supporting the council's proposal," Fruscione said.
Choolokian said taxpayers and business owners in Niagara Falls are getting good news this budget year compared to the outlook of an 8.3 percent tax increase for homeowners, service cuts and city hall lay-offs as was proposed in the executive budget.
"It's a good day for the people of Niagara Falls," Choolokian said.
Four of the five council members - also known as a "super majority" - are needed to override any mayoral veto. On Monday, the council voted to override several significant mayoral vetoes.
Lawmakers denied Dyster's bid to prevent them from eliminating $3.1 million in city funding earmarked for the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp. in 2013. The city has given the money to the agency out of a pool of state aid since the state-run downtown development agency was established in 2001. City lawmakers argued that the state aid that has been delivered to the agency each year was needed to plug the city's financial hole next year.
The council also blocked Dyster's effort to restore overtime funds for the police and code enforcement departments. Instead, council members moved to create a contingency fund that will allow them to oversee the dispersement of overtime funds as needed for police, code enforcement and other personnel.
City lawmakers also denied Dyster's bid to restore full salaries for two key members of his administration - City Administrator Donna Owens and City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka. As a result, Owens will have her pay reduced by $40,000 next year and Skurka's salary will be cut by $18,000 heading in 2013. Council members also overturned vetoes that would have eliminated two positions that will be vacant due to retirements at the end of the year.
Fruscione said the contingency fund - which will hold $308,000 - will allow the council to monitor overtime in the police and code enforcement departments more closely.
"You have to ask and justify now," Fruscione said. "All it does is put a little more control on a tight financial situation."
Dyster said the council's efforts to maintain current tax rates seem like good news now, but suggested some of the council's amendments may cause issues down the road.
"It's not about where we ended up but how we got here and what it means for the future," Dyster said.
Dyster is particularly concerned about the elimination of funding to USA Niagara, which the state will likely withhold from the aid it gives to the city next year, bypassing the city and giving the funds directly to the state agency, he said.
"If you make the assumption that those monies aren't going to be provided to the city again if we raid them this year, then that leaves us $3.1 million in the hole as we start the 2014 budget process," Dyster said.
And as for the cuts in salary to two people in his administration, Dyster said he fears the individuals in question were targeted for "personal" reasons.
"The city council isn't supposed to be in the business of doing performance evaluations on people that work for the administration and I'm just very concerned that in some cases this has become personal," Dyster said. "That's no way to run city government."
Dyster said that while the tax rate has been flat since 2006 the city's expenses have gone up by about $20 million, and that could mean trouble in the future.
"You can't keep going like this forever," Dyster said. "You've delivered good news for this year but, if you look even just a little bit down the road, some major dark, dark clouds are on the horizon."