By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — I took a couple of “retreats” lately. Not the kind that is a step backward. Several online dictionaries offered synonyms for the word, such as “a refuge, haven, sanctuary, escape” to describe my experiences. I might add they were very far from the “step back or pull back” version as they all involved progress.
In early February, the Niagara Falls Block Club Council held its annual retreat which allowed block club members and other invited guests with similar interests to gather together to listen and learn about achievements, new ideas, new programs in place and definitions of some that been around awhile from local government elected and staff officials. Not all are mentioned here due to space limitations. Mayor Paul Dyster, Congressman Brian Higgins, State Sen. George Maziarz and Assemblyman John Ceretto welcomed the audience with highlights within their area of government.
Of great interest to me was Niagara County Court Judge Sara Farkas who left her seat on the dais and came into the audience to speak passionately about “the best thing she has done since her election to the bench.” She described in interesting detail how she found out about a Veterans Court in Buffalo and became immersed in bringing this advantage to the Niagara County Court system which finally began in September 2013 after four years of begging the court system to allow Niagara County to have such a court.
She described it as sort of a drug court where treatment is offered as a way to rehabilitate veterans whose substance abuse or mental health diagnosis has led to crime. There are drug courts in most communities but the difference here is the defendants are veterans and are mentored by volunteers who are also veterans, some of whom started out the same way. Our veterans court is one of only 18 such courts throughout New York. The Veterans Administration assists the court with help with veterans’ benefits. Successful release from the treatment program often reduces or eliminates the criminal charge. There are no additional staff costs for the extra work involved. Its main goal is to assist men and women who have served in the military (combat service is not mandatory) and gained problems that others cannot relate to. Court is held each Thursday at 2 p.m. and the public is welcome to attend.
Sheriff James Voutour described several new programs within his jurisdiction such as the central call center which handles all 911 calls originating from land-line phones within the county (except the three cities) and all 911 calls from any cellular phone in the county including the three cities. All five town and village police departments are dispatched from this center and the New York State Police have recently been included. Volunteer fire and ambulance service within the county and North Tonawanda Fire Department are also included. He described a mapping system in use where all road vehicles can be tracked allowing the closest cars sent to any scene in record time.
An inmate child video visitation program which requires the father to read to his child and video programs that reduce mileage costs including interviews with public defenders and inmates, pre-sentence investigations and even defendant court appearances which save transportation costs were described.
Niagara Falls Police Superintendent Bryan DalPorto presented a crime statistic power point presentation showing a reduction of 6 percent in crime in 2013 in most categories. He had graphs, charts and numbers verified by the New York State Department of Criminal Justice showing the progress made by the department. Increased staffing has allowed for more officers on the street and foot patrols have been re-instituted resulting in 6 percent more arrests.
Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo presented programs instituted through his department during 2013 such as support and assistance to the Isaiah 61 Program, the first-ever Community Development Department Home Ownership Auction, the Vacant Lot Initiative and others.
City Controller Maria Brown highlighted the Seneca Gaming Compact with a detailed description of the State Finance Law, Article 6 Section 99H and described when and how the funds are received by the City and noted that the Mayor and Council are responsible for the spending plan.
J.P. Kennedy of the U. S. Attorney’s office described some of the civil division’s success in fighting fraud waste and abuse. He also noted the Western New York border with Canada is the busiest traffic area in the drug trade.
Later in February I attended the Niagara Beautification Commission Retreat which was also a step forward as the main thrust of this session was planning for its 2014-2015 Year. Chairman Tom Lowe pasted “Post It Notes” on a board outlining projects the NBC is involved in during a calendar year. Members chose those of interest and formed table discussions with each other to make detailed plans for the coming year. These included the Holiday Decorating Competition, Spotlight Awards, City Entrance ways, Membership, NBC Tree Nursery, Clean Mob activities and others. I worked with Vice-Chair Lana Perlman, members Doris Hampton and Mary Norton on new schedules and changes in some procedures in the selection and presentation of the Spotlight Award which is one of our most popular and sought after programs. A rotating committee scouts out potential businesses in the city who have consistently maintained a beautiful and welcoming location and they are highlighted with our “spotlight.” We also made changes in categories and ideas for a membership drive this year. Each group “reported in” at the end of the morning.
All in all an educational and rewarding experience.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.