by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls Water Board adopted its 2013 budget Wednesday that includes a 6 percent rate hike.
A $26.7 million spending plan, the budget calls for home-owning customers to pay about $5 extra per quarter on average.
"I feel it's a responsible budget," Board Chairman Ted Janese said. "Our staff was originally looking at a 12 percent increase. We were able to get it down to about 8.5 percent. Then our finance committee, including myself and Michael McNally, was able to find some other reductions."
There was an addition, as the board approved hiring Roger Lance to serve as director of administrative services, a three-year position at $70,000 per year, Wednesday night.
Lance, whose hiring was approved by a 3-2 margin with Janese, McNally and Marchelos agreeing, will begin Monday.
Residents feeling the crunch of possible increasing taxes on the city level won't find any help from the water board. Janese said the five-member entity, made up entirely of appointed volunteers, had to find a way to overcome a dramatic loss in revenue with a 20-year settlement with Occidental Chemical coming to an end after this year.
The lost revenue is about $1.3 million which officials will need to make up or drastically cut its expenses to meet. Janese said the board, since taking over the city's water service in 2003, has done both well.
"We've trimmed the budget as much as we could," he said. "We've gone from 131 jobs down to 88 or 89 in this plan. Government wouldn't make cuts like that. We're in a tough place, but this isn't something where we've been irresponsible."
Janese did allude to some additional revenues possibly coming in within the next few years, as well as some cost saving measures to lower expenses. He said a few industrial customers will come online, while a pilot program involving new meters on Cayuga Island may pay off.
The meters, which allow workers to collect more accurate readings while at a distance, will allow meter readers to simply drive by and collect data, rather than manually walk up.
Still, the board knows they have a massive gap to fill, one Board Member Nicholas Marchelos said has been in the works for years. So it was important, he said, the board find a way not only to cover the increasing costs from pension programs, contractual increases, health insurance provision and other known costs, but also start to plug the hole caused by Occidental's completion of payments.
"We're on a 6 percent increase, which I think is the best we can do," he said. "This increase follows a zero increase (in 2009), 1 percent increase (in 2010), zero increase (in 2011) and 2 percent increase (in 2012). So we've held the line here."
But public concern about the increasing rates was briefly displayed during a public hearing prior to the budget's adoption. Falls resident Tony Sciricco expressed his dismay the board would consider increasing water rates because there are fewer customers in the city.
"Nobody's going to come back to this city," he said.
Capitol Cleaners owner Russell Petrozzi also questioned the board's decision to increase the rate, though he implored the board to examine the system as a whole because something isn't working properly.
"Please turn over ever stone and develop a new business model," he said. "I know 6 percent probably isn't enough for the situation you're in, but this structure doesn't work."