Niagara Gazette

April 3, 2013

Casino revenue crunch will impact lot maintenance, other city services

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Residents can expect to see more grass on city lots growing free and wild this summer.

That's according to Department of Public Works Director David Kinney who told city officials this week that his department did not have room in its budget to hire Niagara Grass Cutting, the landscaping firm it has had under contract for several years and the same one responsible for mowing lots owned by the city itself. 

"I want everybody to understand that we don't have the wherewithal or the equipment to do that type of work," Kinney said in an update for city lawmakers on Monday. "So those properties, as of right now, will not (be mowed). And as we add more and more properties, in rem (auction), demolitions, we're in that same situation."

The city now owns approximately 600 vacant lots.

Kinney's department had trouble keeping up on grass mowing last year with less money available to hire temporary workers. This year, he said he will have even less money available to put boots on the streets, take care of parks as well as maintain city lots and other public spaces.

The casino cash being withheld because of the dispute between New York state and the Seneca Nation of Indians over the exclusivity clause in the 2002 gaming compact was not counted as anticipated revenues in this year's budget as it had been in previous years. So, although the city council was able to hold the line on taxes and avoid layoffs during the budget amendment process, cuts to various departments like the DPW were made.

Kinney said to clean and mow a lot he would have to pull four or five workers off of other city work - mowing in parks and forestry work - as well as dedicate equipment used for other tasks.

"I can't designate the machine nor can I designate the personnel to take care of the 600 lots that the contractor used to do," Kinney said.

In addition, the casino cash crunch has left Kinney's department with less money for other general maintenance services than it has had in previous years. This year, Kinney said he's expecting DPW to struggle to keep pace with the following: 

• Potholes. The city will not have the money to rent the Pothole Killer machine, which costs about $70,000 to use for two months. As a result, Kinney said, the DPW will have to revert to the old method of a truck, laborers, shovels and stampers to patch the holes.

• Downtown clean up. Kinney has four laborers dedicated to keeping the downtown area looking nice. In previous years, he was able to hire a second crew to work nights and offer overtime for workers willing to take weekend shifts to make sure that tourists walked through a clean and trim looking cityscape. Without the funding, he said his department will no longer has access to the extra help, or the hours. 

• Street replacement. Kinney will not have the personnel to use the zipper machine - a large milling machine used to take out sections of road - to replace particularly pock-marked sections of city streets.

During Monday's council meeting, Councilman Charles Walker said Kinney needs to come up with a plan to deal with the shortfalls the best way possible moving forward.

"We can't go through a whole summer not cutting these lots," Walker said.

Kinney said he has been exploring different options, but without the money to contract with private companies or more money budgeted for overtime or temporary workers he does not see a realistic solution.

"I'm looking at different avenues right now, but I have nothing solid," Kinney said.

Mayor Paul Dyster said taking care of the growing list of city owned lots is a "major stress on the system."

"That's just an immense task," Dyster said.

But, he said, it's important that the city holds itself to the same maintenance standards that it expects from its property owners even in years when revenues are lean. 

"We want to make sure that we are taking care of our properties," he said.