By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Funds for the ZOOM Team, other clean up efforts in the Falls and a library floor project were cut by members of the city council majority to accommodate a $150,000 entrance enhancement project at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
The changes in the Community Development Department’s proposed budget were made by the council several weeks after department director Seth Piccirillo submitted his spending plan.
“This whole new budget was a back-door deal,” said Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti, who is questioning the budget revisions proposed by a group of her council colleagues.
Piccirillo submitted his annual budget to the city council on Sept. 7. The council returned their amended budget — with numerous changes and added projects — on Oct. 22.
Council Chairman Sam Fruscione defended the budget changes and the process involved, saying he and his colleagues operated in a transparent manner.
“I made it extremely transparent by putting it on the Internet, as the council does with all documents,” he said.
A description of the budget process and the source of the funding for the projects can be found on the city council’s website in a document titled “Supporting Documentation for Council Agenda for October 29th 2012”. However, nowhere in the document is there specifics about the changes in funding.
Those changes include two projects added to the revised budget, including a $150,000 plan to enhance the entrance to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center’s Hodge Building and $10,000 worth of funding to hire part-time teachers for the Francis Center’s after-school programming.
To accommodate those changes, funding reductions were made in other areas of the spending plan as originally proposed by Piccirillo, including:
• A $50,000 reduction in funding for the Department of Public Works’ Zone Outreach Objective Mission team. Under the amended budget the ZOOM team will receive no funding.
• A $25,000 reduction in funding for Niagara University’s vacant lot beautification project. That project would receive no funding under the amended budget.
• A $50,000 reduction in funding to the Niagara Falls Public Library for a floor reconstruction project. That project would go unfunded in the amended budget.
• A $50,000 reduction in funding for commercial facade rehabilitation program with matching funds from the state. The funding was set at $100,000 in the original budget.
Grandinetti, who said she was not invited to participate in the forming of the amended budget, questioned several of the revisions, including the move to reduce funding for the library — which is heavily used by the community — to fund an entranceway project for the hospital, which has received $900,000 in support from the city since 2009.
She also believes her council colleagues waited too long without ever involving themselves in the budget process to make such “drastic, last-minute” changes behind closed doors.
“Some of the decisions that are being made are ridiculous,” Grandinetti said.
The city’s community development department oversees the spending of federal funds earmarked for Niagara Falls each year. As part of the department’s annual budget process, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the budget to be the subject of a series of public meetings, a public comment period and a public hearing before its approval.
Piccirillo said his original spending proposal was developed through public meetings and was based, in part, on direct input from residents, including members of area block clubs. He said council members who revised his budget never discussed the changes with him before returning their amended version.
“I literally thought that there was going to be no changes until Oct. 20,” Piccirillo said.
Councilman Charles Walker, who is employed by the hospital and serves as the liaison between Community Development and the council on budget matters, said he didn’t see his involvement in the process as a problem given that the $150,000 is a small portion of the $2.2 million budget.
“It’s a very small part of the budget,” Walker said.
He said that the council’s decision to take funding away from projects like the library floor reconstruction is part of the hard decision making process that comes with forming a budget and that the council has to refuse good proposals every year.
“There are good projects that we can’t afford,” Walker said.
Walker also pointed to the reduced amount that the hospital is receiving as a sign of the tough decisions that need to be made.
“The original request from the hospital was $250,000,” Walker said. “We reduced that to $150,000.”
Walker plans on voting on the budget unless the city’s law department advises him to recuse himself, he said.
He argued that the public had been given an opportunity to respond to the changes, which were made public on Oct. 22, by calling or writing their council and that there will still be an opportunity for public comment at Monday’s meeting.
“The budget has not been finalized,” Walker said.
Council members involved in the budget amendment process did add funding for a few things, including:
• An additional $25,000 for an at-risk youth counseling program at the New Jerusalem Boy’s Reporting Center. The program will receive $75,000 under the amended budget.
• An additional $10,000 for the construction of a playground at Gill Creek Park needed to fulfill a match grant from the Niagara Falls School District. Under the amended budget the project will receive $60,000.
• An additional $2,000 in the demolition budget bringing that total to $489,000.
Fruscione said that his biggest concern with the budget — the $450,000 dedicated to administrative costs — still remains.
“That could go towards improving and building the community,” Fruscione said.
Fruscione said his personal goal for the budget was to protect the demolition budget line, which gained $2,000 in the amendment process, he said.
“I also wanted to make sure that we got the $60,000 for Gill Creek Park to match the school district,” he said.
Piccirillo has asked the council to allow him to present at the past two council meetings in a series of emails to the council’s office, but has not been permitted to explain the budget to the public at the meetings. He has again put in a request to present his budget at Monday’s council meeting but has yet to receive any indication as to whether he will be given the opportunity.
“Why does this have to be last minute?” Piccirillo said. “This is disappointing. Why can’t I present the budget?”
Fruscione said he will confer with the other council members before deciding whether Piccirillo will be given the opportunity to present the budget at Monday’s meeting.
“We’re going to let the public speak first,” Fruscione said.
Norma Higgs, a member of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council, said she feels shut out of what should be a very open and public process.
“There was no opportunity for public input,” she said.
Higgs, who attended one of the Community Development sessions this summer to give input on behalf of the block clubs, said she is also disappointed to see money being taken way from the library and ZOOM team to go to the hospital for an entrance upgrade.
“The hospital has gotten money every single year,” she said. “We should be funding other projects too.”
Higgs is trying to organize members of various block clubs to take action against the changes, but fears there is not enough time to stop the city council from passing the budget at Monday’s meeting.
Fruscione, Sam mug Sam Fruscione Defends changes