Niagara Gazette

February 4, 2013

Elimination of funds for block clubs, beautification group defended by council majority

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Three members of the city council want to cut or eliminate funding for some community groups that have received financial support from the municipality for several years.

During a recent meeting, the council voted down resolutions put forth by Mayor Paul Dyster to pass appropriations agreements with the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center and the Niagara Falls Block Club Council. The requests were both rejected in a 3-2 vote with Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and fellow members Robert Anderson Jr. and Sam Fruscione voting against and council members Charles Walker and Kristen Grandinetti voting in favor.

All five members voted to table a similar agreement with the Niagara Falls Beautification Commission.

All of the funding was outlined in the 2013 municipal spending plan approved by the city council in November. At that time, council members did not amend funding lines for the organizations in question despite having internal audit reports detailing the groups’ spending from 2009 to 2011. The reports were delivered to the council following an April 2012 request by Fruscione.

The NACC and NBC funding lines come from city bed tax revenues while the block club council funding comes from property tax revenues.

Fruscione said the council majority wants to rethink how much money the city gives to each organization. After reviewing the audits, he said he found many expenses in the reports that he views as “frivolous.”

For example, he said in 2011 the block club council spent $100 on a magician for a Halloween party, the beautification commission spent more than $850 for telephone line and Internet and the NACC spent $20,416 on advertising.

The money that the block club council gets is supposed to be used for crime prevention efforts only, Fruscione said.

“We want to make sure that moving forward it’s used strictly for improving the quality of life in Niagara Falls,” he said.

Fruscione said the council needs to make sure the organizations aren’t improperly spending money because the city could always be audited by the state Comptroller’s Office.

“We all have to be accountable,” he said. “Plus, the budget is going to be worse next year. So everybody’s got to take a little hit.”

But not everyone is taking a hit.

The council passed the appropriations agreement with Niagara Community Action Program Inc., an organization in which Fruscione serves as an active board member. That measure was approved in a 4-0 vote, with Fruscione abstaining. The organization will receive the full $27,500 it was earmarked in the adopted 2013 budget.

The council also voted to pass appropriations agreements for the Niagara Military Affairs Council for $2,500 and OSC-TV 21 — the student-run television network that records council meetings — for $10,000. Neither organization had its funding cut.

Fruscione and Grandinetti are both employees of the school district. Fruscione abstained in the vote to pass the school program’s funding. Grandinetti voted yes on the resolution.

When asked, Fruscione said he could not supply the Gazette with the self-audits from either NIACAP or OSC-TV 21 because he never requested them from the organizations because it would be a conflict of interest.

“I can’t audit myself,” he said.

But the letter sent to the three organizations that stand to have their funding cut or eliminated reads, “We are asking all entities to submit a detailed list of the expenditures of these monies for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011.

All five members voted to eliminate the block club funding during the budget amendment process but a veto by Mayor Paul Dyster to that resolution was sustained with votes from Walker and Grandinetti.

Dyster said he was puzzled by the council’s blocking of the appropriations agreements.

The council had the documents submitted since last April, but did not address the amounts to be given to the organizations during the budget process last fall, he noted.

“The discussion about the actual agreement is just the implementation of what these contracts already say,” Dyster said. “These organizations probably came away from the initial budget process thinking that they would see these funds.”

Anderson said the council had much bigger issues to deal with during the budget process — during which they stopped what was to be an 8 percent tax hike for homeowners and a 5 percent hike for business owners proposed in the mayor’s budget — than deciding what organizations should continue to get city money.

“We didn’t have $10,000 problems we had million dollar problems,” Anderson said.

Dyster said the city gets a deal when investing in these organizations as they are the ones who help contribute to community cleanups, crime prevention efforts and other quality of life initiatives.

“With each of these organizations, that rely very heavily on volunteer labor, the amount of leveraging that we get for the small amount of money that the city invests in them is returned to us many, many times over,” the mayor said.

As for the magicians and hot dogs questioned by Fruscione, Dyster said community outreach is an important part of what the organizations do, particularly the block club council.

“We’re looking for them to sort of bridge city hall and the various city operational departments into the individual neighborhoods,” Dyster said. “In order to do that, they have to do outreach.”

Choolokian said the council hopes to sit down and negotiate a better deal for the city with the block club council and the beautification commission, but indicated the council majority would not support continued funding for the NACC.

“It looks like there are certain groups that are getting singled out for funding for long periods of time,” Choolokian said. “We can’t continue to do that.”

Choolokian said the tight city budget — and what is likely to be another tough fiscal situation next year — means the city has to get “creative” with the funds it does have.

“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “Times are changing and we need to go in a new direction.”

Walker said the volunteer work, information and community engagement that the organizations in question provide is well worth the investment for the city.

“They bring the community together around a certain issue or topic,” he said.

Norma Higgs, who is the treasurer for the block club council and sits on the board of both of the other organizations, said she has always negotiated contracts with the administration, as outlined under the city charter.

“The council is not to negotiate contracts,” Higgs said.

The timing of the decision to cut funding to the organizations seems odd to Higgs, who noted that the council has had the internal audits since April of last year and raised no objections to the funding during the budget process.

“We had assumed because it had gone through the budget that everything would continue as it has,” she said. “You plan on that money, you wait on it and then you wake up one morning and it’s not there.”

Higgs said the money is reimbursed and asked why the council never questioned the block club council’s spending before.

“If it’s not approved by the city controller’s office, we don’t get our money back,” she said.

Higgs said had she known the funding was to be cut, particularly for the block club council, she would have searched for other funding sources.

“I’m looking into other funding now,” she said. “If we find it, then we’ll go in that direction.”

Glenn Choolokian City funds are tight