Niagara Gazette

November 19, 2012

Budget reduces taxes

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — TOWN OF NIAGARA — An assistant building inspector whose job will be eliminated under a 2013 budget adopted by board members last week has been placed on paid administrative leave through the end of the year. 

Jeffrey Stahlman, whose job was cut as part of a board-approved downsizing of the building inspections department, has been notified that his services were no longer needed, but he would still be paid his regular salary and benefits through Dec. 31, 2012. 

The message was delivered to Stahlman in a memorandum from Town Board member and building inspections department liaison Dan Sklarski.

"You will be paid your regular salary and benefits through Dec. 31, 2012, but you will not be reporting for or performing work in the town hall," reads a copy of the notice obtained by the Niagara Gazette. 

In a 3-2 vote last week, town board members approved a $7.13 million total budget for 2013. The spending plan calls for the homestead rate to decrease by 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, from the current rate of $4.98 to $4.71. For non-homestead property owners, the 2013 rate will decrease by 29 cents, down from $8.76 per $1,000 this year to $8.47 in 2013. 

Sklarski, Supervisor Steve Richards and board member Charles Teixeira voted in favor of the budget, while Deputy Supervisor Marc Carpenter and board member Rob Clark voted against. 

Richards said the final version of the budget represents a reduction in taxes for homeowners of 9.3 percent and 6.8 percent for commercial property owners. 

"I don't know how many communities in this county reduced taxes but we did," Richards said. 

The final version included cuts to the building department and reductions in the planning and zoning offices that were proposed before the final budget vote was taken at a board meeting last Tuesday. According to Richards, eliminating Stahlman's assistant inspector position and reducing full-time Building Inspector Charles Haseley's job to part-time reduced costs by $110,562. Richards characterized the building department cuts as just the latest in what he described as his administration's ongoing effort to reduce the size of town government, noting that the town also cut a janitor position this year and consolidated an elected tax collector's post with the town clerk to save money last year. 

"This has been an ongoing rightsizing of town government," Richards said. "This is an ongoing process that we've been doing over the last few years."  

Richards said a municipality the size of the Town of Niagara did not need three inspectors, saying just one new home requiring inspection was built within town limits this year. By comparison, Richards said, the two inspectors in the Town of Wheatfield oversee construction of 64 new homes.

Richards said the duties performed by both inspectors will be handled next year by an independent inspector, likely from a private engineering firm, that would be hired with funds from the "engineering cost recovery fee," a charge the town can pass along to private companies constructing commercial buildings. 

"The commercial business will pay for that and we'll select the inspector," Richards said. 

As for extending a leave of absence for Stahlman, Richards said he advocated for the move on the advice of Town Attorney Michael Risman, suggesting the town wanted to avoid a situation where a lame-duck employee would have access to vital town resources such as computerized equipment. 

"That was done on the advice of the town attorney which I fully support," Richards said. 

Risman said the town could have abolished Stahlman's position effective last week, but wanted to give him a chance to "land on his feet" by allowing him to continue to collect his salary and benefits through year's end. Risman said Stahlman was placed on administrative leave to avoid a situation where an employee who no longer had a long-term position was working at town hall or on the town's behalf. Risman stressed that the leave was not related to any disciplinary or legal matters.  

"There was no formal discipline of any sort," Risman said. 

Sklarski could not be reached for comment on Monday. 

Attempts to reach Stahlman for comment were also not successful on Monday. 

Clark, who opposed the cuts to the building inspection department, questioned the need for a leave of absence in Stahlman's case and also questioned the manner in which it was handled. He suggested the town board as a whole should have been asked to approve the leave as opposed to Sklarski, as the department liaison, delivering the message to Stahlman himself. 

"You need a board resolution to do that," Clark said. 

Clark also questioned the wisdom of eliminating Stahlman's position and reducing a full-time inspector to part-time, suggesting the move will put the department in a position where it will not be able to meet inspection demands for new builds, with a specific eye on commercial properties. Beyond that, he said, the town needs an inspector certified by the state to handle such duties and suggested it would not be appropriate to hire someone from a private engineering company to do such work.

Clark also said additional cuts could and should have been made in other areas of the budget, including stipends for various town-related duties, including, for example, a street lighting inspector that is paid $1,996 for 104 hours of work.

"We can cut more in spending," Clark said. "There's areas in the budget we could have looked at and cut."