By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette —
City lawmakers on Wednesday cut Mayor Paul Dyster's proposed budget by $3.1 million while restoring jobs and holding the line on taxes for 2013.
How did they do it?
Mainly by eliminating $3.1 million in state funding earmarked for USA Niagara Development Corp., the state agency formed more than a decade ago to oversee development in downtown Niagara Falls. Funding for the agency was included in Dyster's proposed 2013 budget, as it has been in every city budget since 2002.
Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said the deal with USA Niagara has been going on for far too long.
"It appears at this point in time, from our research, that we were double paying on every single project," Fruscione said.
Fruscione said the state should be funding USA Niagara projects, not the city.
"The state's going to have to step up and do what they promised to do, which is they're going to have to invest in the city of Niagara Falls," Fruscione said.
Fruscione said Aid and Incentives for Municipalities, or AIM, funding from the state - the source of USA Niagara's city funds - is meant to balance the city's budget and for providing services to business owners and taxpayers. That deal will expire at the end of the year.
"We're now breaking ties," Fruscione said.
Councilman Glenn Choolokian said he thinks USA Niagara has made Old Falls Street "beautiful" with projects like the Niagara Falls Culinary Center and Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls, but that in a year when the city is facing such a large budget shortfall tough decisions need to be made.
"Again, why are we in this position?," Choolokian said. "Because the casino money didn't come yet. If we had the casino money, they're not cut."
Choolokian said the council's priority was maintaing services without raising taxes.
"We had to make a decision this year," Choolokian said. "If you're a homeowner or a family guy you can't afford to raise your taxes right now."
Choolokian said if the city gets the money it is owed from the gaming compact, the council would consider restoring the funding, but that the city needed the state funding for other purposes in this budget.
The elimination of the funds from the city would not cause USA Niagara to stop operating, he said.
"They've got invested interests here too," Choolokian said. "The state's going to pick up their end."
Dyster said USA Niagara has been instrumental in the many positive projects that have transformed downtown.
"While I don't agree with the council's action and feel that it is short-sighted, I believe that the council's refusal to extend the agreement with USA Niagara, and in effect with the state, isn't any indictment of the great work USA Niagara has done for us as a city," Dyster said. "I understand it in terms just of their desire to simply get through one more year."
Several other notable cuts were made in the 150 amendments that the council passed during the budget hearing, which lasted a little over an hour. They include:
• reducing City Administrator Donna Owens' salary by $40,000, meaning that she would make $70,000 next year.
• reducing City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka's salary by $18,000. If the measure holds, Skurka would earn $77,000 next year.
• trimmed $600,000 designated for consultants in various departments in Dyster's proposed budget.
Members of the council majority - Fruscione, Choolokian and Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. - have publicly questioned the performances of both Owens and Skurka. Choolokian said the salary cuts were not political, but a reaction to calls that he has received from the public questioning salary increases at certain positions that have occurred under Dyster's watch.
"What we did was looked at production, saw who was really worth their money and those two positions, we decided that they do need to be decreased," Choolokian said. "It is what it is."
Owens, who was at the meeting, declined to comment. Dyster said he doesn't feel that the council should be tampering with city employees' salaries as they had been negotiated or advertised.
"As I've said in past years, it's not council's job to be doing performance appraisals," Dyster said.
The council's amendments also restored more than half of the positions eliminated in Dyster's proposed budget and all of the hourly jobs subject to civil servant laws that would have barred the city from hiring temporary workers if they are cut. Funding for hiring those workers was also restored in the amendments meaning that the mayor's ZOOM team and other seasonal workers who keep the parks clean and the grass mowed would be able to return this year.
The Niagara Falls Library had $75,000 restored of the $100,000 funding decrease called for under Dyster's proposed spending plan.
Dyster has until Dec. 10 to veto the amendments. The council has the ability to overturn any veto, but needs a "super majority" of four members to do so.