By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The city of Niagara Falls will allocate a larger portion of its available federal funds to demolitions next year.
During a meeting Monday, city lawmakers agreed to amend the 2013 Community Development department budget, moving $100,000 in funding from a hospital entranceway project and $10,000 in funding designated for a summer youth program at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center into a spending line for demolitions. As a result, the community development department will have a total of $599,000 to use for the demolition of blighted buildings next year.
The budget is not finalized just yet. Council members voted to table the spending plan until a special session called for Thursday, during which Mayor Paul Dyster will present his 2013 municipal budget. Lawmakers said they moved to table to allow for more public input on the CD budget.
Changes made Monday followed several previously held public hearings during which residents and area block club members suggested the city set aside more money for demolitions. They also followed questions raised last week by some community leaders and Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti about revisions made by several council members to the department's original spending plan, including the addition of funding to renovate the entrance to a hospital building.
On Monday, Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, one of the lawmakers who moved to add additional dollars for the hospital to the original budget submitted by Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo, insisted the push for more demolition money was planned all along.
Fruscione, who co-authored an editorial published in the Gazette calling for an increase in city demolitions with council member Robert Anderson Jr., said that he, Anderson and Councilman Glenn Choolokian previously expressed concerns about the amount of funding in demolitions and wanted to increase the number all along.
"We're just following through on the plan that we established," Fruscione said.
Last week, Grandinetti suggested the council majority moved to add funds for the hospital without allowing proper public input in what she classified as a "back-room deal."
Fruscione characterized Grandinetti's comments as political sniping that were without merit.
"There was no back-room deal," Fruscione said. "It was a recommendation."
Anderson said demolitions are a priority for him because vacant buildings are such a widespread problem in the city.
With the wind howling outside of council chambers - the result of Hurricane Sandy - Anderson said high winds can cause substantial damage to the city's many vacant houses, furthering the blight that already exists.
"Do you know what sort of destruction that can cause?," Anderson said. "They've got to go."
Anderson said council members want to know what the public thinks of the decision to put more funding into demolitions before casting a final vote.
"We want to give the people of this city the opportunity if they want to address it, pro or con, for their input," Anderson said. "That's the name of the game. Whether you agree or disagree, this is fair."
Grandinetti defended her earlier critique of her colleagues' handling of the budget process, maintaining that her concerns surrounded the projects that were being funded - like the hospital entranceway project - when the city is in such a dire financial situation.
"This is not political," Grandinetti said. "We are trying to find every penny we can to get through this crisis as quickly as possible, as easy as possible without cutting jobs."
Grandinetti said she realizes the importance of the hospital to the community, but feels an entranceway project is something that can wait during a tight budget year. She pointed $900,000 in funding the hospital has received from the city in the last five years.
"If it were for medical equipment, if we hadn't invested what we have invested in the last five years with the hospital then I would say 'let's try to find a way to help them out,'" Grandinetti said. "This stuff is cosmetic."
Grandinetti said she would like to see the hospital get funding in future years.
"This is just not the year," she said.
Piccirillo, who is in his first year as director of community development, said in future years he would like to see the council return their amended budget sooner to allow more time for community input.
"We made it clear that our original draft budget was going to be reflective of the public comment and that any changes or revisions to it should be done in the public forum because that's where the budget was built," Piccirillo said.
Piccirillo said the public will be given a condensed opportunity to comment on the council's changes to the budget but that ideally there would be a 30-day public comment period on the amendments, followed by a public hearing.
"Starting first thing [Tuesday] morning the public will have an opportunity to go on our website and review the changes," Piccirillo said.
Community development is most concerned with submitting the budget to the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - the primary source of the department's funding - by the Nov. 15 deadline, Piccirillo said.
"That is our primary goal," he said.