By Justin Sondel
The Niagara Falls City Council approved $150,000 in spending cuts to Mayor Paul Dyster's proposed 2014 budget at its annual budget amendment session.
City lawmakers adopted 46 of 66 proposed budget amendments put to vote during a budget session before Monday night's city council meeting, reducing Dyster's $95.8 million spending plan.
Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian said he's happy the council was able to reduce the city budget through amendments, but had hoped that more of the amendments proposed by Councilman Sam Fruscione, Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. and himself would have found support with their colleagues Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti and Councilman Charles Walker.
"We went through and took things out that we knew we could get by with," Choolokian said.
Dyster's proposed budget includes no tax increase, no cuts in services and no job cuts, but uses more than $4 million in reserves to close a gap.
Choolokian said he, Fruscione and Anderson had proposed more than $550,000 in cuts which, had they all gone through, would have reduced property taxes by more than 1 percent.
The city still faces long-term structural budget issues and Choolokian would have liked for the taxpayers to see their taxes reduced before those issues cause problems that would not allow for a decrease in the future.
"If we could have decreased the taxes and lessened the blow for next year, I think we have a lot of troubled times coming," Choolokian said.
Anderson, who often votes with Choolokian and Fruscione, missed the meeting due to an illness.
The council adopted budget amendments that:
• Added $20,000 to the salary of both Fire Chief Thomas Colangelo and Police Chief Bryan DalPorto. Both measures were approved unanimously.
• Reduced the salary of City Administrator Donna Owens by $35,000. The council voted unanimously to reduce Owens $110,000 salary by $40,000 as part of last year's budget amendments process, a move that Dyster unsuccessfully vetoed. Dyster attempted to restore her salary in this year's proposed budget. If this amendment, which passed unanimously, is upheld, Owens would make $5,000 more than she did last year.
• Eliminated a line for the director of business development position which has been vacant since Fran Iusi retired in January 2012.
The council defeated amendments that would have:
• Reduced the line for the now-vacant city engineer's position from $96,000 to $78,000. Dyster has said he feels it would be difficult to attract qualified candidates at the reduced level.
• Eliminated a $35,000 consulting line that Dyster would use to hire a grant administrator to seek out new grants and handle reporting responsibilities the city has already accepted.
Dyster now has until Dec. 1 to submit any vetoes he wishes to put forth on the adopted amendments. The council must then vote on the vetoes, which require four votes to overturn, and adopt the finalized budget by Dec. 15.
Dyster bristled at a few of the amendments, in particular the cut to Owens' salary.
Dyster has maintained that Owens, who left a job with the city of Atlanta to take her city administrator position in the Falls, negotiated that salary before moving to the Cataract City and deserves to be paid the salary at which she was hired.
In addition, even at the $110,000 figure, Owens was never the highest paid city employee, he added.
"I think you've got to pay the city administrator a competitive salary," Dyster said. "I look sideways at the board of education where you have numerous administrators who make six-figure salaries."
Dyster argued that Owens' job is as difficult as an administrative position at one of the city schools.
"I know this is a very difficult job, for example, to run an elementary school," Dyster said. "But that doesn't mean you should make more than someone who runs a whole city."
Dyster said that he was happy with some of the defeated amendments, in particular the amendment that would have the shot down his attempt to restore the city engineer's salary.
"It was a mixed bag," he said. "There were some positives."