Niagara Gazette

November 18, 2012

GUEST VIEW: Transparency needed from Niagara Falls City Council

By Kristen Grandinetti
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Politicians make promises during campaigns. We talk about being a voice for the public, and being honest with you.

Unfortunately, politicians can change between the campaign and the actual job. It happens quietly, as they do not want you to notice. The Niagara Falls City Council is led by two councilmen, Fruscione and Choolokian, who no longer value that government transparency and honesty.

As in the past, Fruscione will say that my comments are “politically motivated.” Clearly, I am a politician, and so is he. When I ran three years ago I told people I would be honest and voice my opinion. If he sees that as political, so be it.

In recent months, major decisions have been made by the city council without enough public dialogue. This is unacceptable to me as a councilwoman and a taxpayer. This guest view gives details on specific issues, and asks questions that I want answered.

Public works fees and fire protection assessment: Fruscione and Choolokian introduced a resolution to supposedly tax the casino and state park for public works and fire protection service. No municipality can tax sovereign nations or state parks, and both councilmen know that. No lawyers will comment on the resolution, because the plan would put the city in court and not create revenues. The councilmen are taking advantage of your frustration. Fruscione and Choolokian are betting that you will forget that the plan was unenforceable and shortsighted, but remember that they favor “tuff” policies during election time. We need realistic ideas, not “tuff” dead-ends. I voted against it because grandstanding on illegal policy is bad government.

Train station budget: Fruscione and Choolokian have continuously delayed the train station project. The council already approved the whole project, with millions in federal dollars already under contract. The delay only hurts hundreds of local trades people and residents that should already be at the job site. The councilmen never make their objections clear, and just continued to table the item and avoid questions from the press. My questions: Councilmen, do you understand that construction projects have schedules? Is your goal to show the federal government that we do not want construction funding and jobs?

2013 Community Development Budget: The city’s community development budget, made up of federal funds, is based on public participation. The department has months of direct public comment during budget drafting. The entire council received a copy of the plan on Sept. 7, and was scheduled to vote on Oct. 15. Seems straightforward, right? Enter the City Council Majority. They tabled the budget without explanation, and denied Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo’s request to present the budget. Why? — because the public’s budget did not suit the council’s preferences. They made two rounds of arbitrary revisions and found a way to take credit for a demolition strategy that includes many stakeholders. Then they tabled it again and gave the public two and half days to comment on the final version, instead of the month it was supposed to have. In the end, we voted on it without public speakers on the same day of the mayor’s budget presentation, where no one would notice. My questions: Councilmen, do you understand that transparency is a law and not a suggestion, and that we are elected to advance the public’s priorities, not our own?

The tax base: 2013 is going to be a difficult budget year. While I thank Governor Cuomo, Dyster, and everyone who worked on the $13 million NYPA agreement, difficult decisions still need to be made. Every year will be hard, and the fear of a tax increase will always exist, if we do not keep and attract residents, especially our young people. We will not be able to afford our city services if people continue to leave at the current rate, without more people moving in. If we ever want a significant tax reduction, we need a larger base. It is simple math.

In October, Choolokian told a national broadcast company that attracting new residents was not a priority, and we should focus on what is here instead. What’s here, is a city suffering from decades of population loss, the tax increases that loss created, and houses that are condemned because there are not enough people to fill them. My questions: Councilman Choolokian — please explain, to me and my fellow homeowners, why growing the tax base, and plans to keep our young people in Niagara Falls, in not a high priority to you? Do you not want to significantly cut our taxes in future years?

These questions should be answered in a public forum. The Niagara Falls City Council works for the public. We have a responsibly to tell whole truths and explain our decisions to the people that gave us that power. From time to time, we need to be reminded of that.

Please understand these are difficult times. No one wants layoffs, no one wants tax hikes. Our expenses have grown tremendously, we have contracts to honor, and we are in tough times. As we would within our own families ... we must band together and make some sacrifices. Hopefully this will be a temporary situation. I am sure many people wish we would take “a tougher line” with the casino revenue issue ... but we are trying to operate within the rules of the compact and not create an adversarial relationship as the state has done. I assure you that if the controller and the mayor had not been cautious and spent prudently, despite what my colleagues say…we would have been in this situation much sooner.

There are projects in the works that we need to protect such as the rail station and partnerships that we have such as USA Niagara. These are very important pieces of our long-term plan. I know there may be questions … please just ask if I don’t have the answer, I will get it for you.

The government is funny, if we are granted federal or state money and we do not use it as prescribed or in a timely fashion they will be more than hesitant to grant it to us in the future.

As we move forward, if you get frustrated or concerned … take a drive down Old Falls Street and look at the now bustling conference center and the beautiful culinary institute (which by the way will be having a scaled down version of the Holiday Market, including its great restaurants and fabulous bakery.) Drive through the Highland and College area and see all the clean up. Count the streets that have been paved, check out Buffalo Avenue, Hope VI and the amazing Underground Rail/Transportation Center, which will surely breathe new life in to the North End.

There are good things happening as well.

Kristen Grandinetti serves on the Niagara Falls City Council