Niagara Gazette

January 8, 2013

GUEST VIEW: Local leaders have failed the Falls again

By Frank Soda
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — As Americans became increasingly frustrated with the congressional negotiations that had pushed our economy ever so close to a plunge over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” those of us living in Niagara Falls could only reflect on how often we have witnessed this type of political theater played out both literally and figuratively in our own community.

At the center of such performances are those lawmakers who have been elected and re-elected expressing the belief that they possess the magic formula for economic revitalization. In reality, it is their addiction to short-term fixes that only worsens the economic problems facing the nation as well as Niagara Falls.

Ten years ago, our state and local elected officials told us that the revenues from Seneca Niagara Casino would become the magic formula curing the financial problems plaguing our community. Now we know this budgetary dependency on casino revenues has only led to a postponement of the structural reforms that are necessary to rebuild the local economy.

What we all should realize is that we have continued to support and elect lawmakers who pander to the American preference for lower taxes and increased government services. Just like drunks begging their favorite bartender for just one more drink, our public officials believed that these annual shots of casino revenues would provide the economic stimulus Niagara Falls had desperately needed. Now that the drunk has been cut off from this magic elixir, he continues to search for just one more quick fix to all of his problems.

So what have the lawmakers at city hall given us for fiscal year 2013? Actually, it is nothing more than the same political sleight of hand we’ve been accepting since we began anticipating that first taste of casino revenues 10 years ago. Our political leaders have offered us another round of our favorite cocktail of no tax increases with a sustained level of basic city services. What they haven’t offered us is their willingness to tackle the underlying weaknesses that have produced the economic stagnation we’ve come to take for granted in Niagara Falls.

It makes you wonder if the candidates we elect to city government are really capable of making the changes that will enable our community to regain economic competitiveness. In reality, it appears we have chosen political leaders who are simply overwhelmed by the dilemma that confronts them.

The basic services that will be delivered to us in 2013 will be paid for from a general fund budget of about $81.4 million. The three largest revenue components in that budget are approximately $28 million from anticipated property taxes; about $18.6 million in various state aid; and $15.6 million in sales and utility taxes. That’s $62.2 million to provide which essential services? Well, we all want police and fire protection. That’s going to cost us about $31.4 million for 2013. All of the various activities provided by the public works department will cost about $12 million, and garbage collection is going to cost almost $3 million. That’s a total of $46 million. Then there is the $7.4 million in debt service payments that will have to be made for all the borrowing that’s been done over the years; about $7.2 million in retirement payments; and $6.8 million in health insurance payments. Guess what? That $62.2 million in revenue is all gone, and then some.

Now let’s be honest and admit that we’ve all approved of the street paving, sidewalk repairs, and equipment purchases that have been accomplished with our share of casino revenues. However, infrastructure investment is only part of the solution for restoring the economic competitiveness of Niagara Falls. Cutting the cost of government and increasing the level of investment in those areas that will improve competitiveness are the challenges that need to be addressed by our political leaders.

So what do we need to do? We need to elect candidates to the city council and the board of education who will forge a lasting partnership that results in genuine educational reform. Our community needs to produce high school graduates who will be abstract thinkers, effective communicators, and who possess high quality technical skills.

We need to elect political leaders who will work with state government and the New York Power Authority to ensure a commitment of low-cost electricity exclusively for the economic development of Niagara Falls.

We need to elect political leaders who will lobby the federal government for the funding necessary to establish expanded access to Canadian markets.

We need to recruit as political candidates those individuals within our community who have the courage to advocate regional interests over the comfort of status quo politics.

We need to elect political leaders who have the vision to look beyond their own re-election.

Frank A. Soda is a NiagaraFalls resident.