By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls Block Club Council held its annual retreat attended by individual club leaders, members and other interested citizens. Our panel discussion centered on crime prevention and neighborhood revitalization with participation from many government leaders.
President Roger Spurback opened the meeting with some history of the almost 20 years the Block Club Council has existed and how it was started with the assistance of then New York Sen. Anthony Nanula who helped organize the original citizens into groups and provided funding to help promote our growth over the years. Roger stated we have held about 7,500 meetings including events during these years. The panel attendance at the retreat was a reflection of the partnerships we have made and are shown below.
One highlight was a visit from our new U. S. Congressman Brian Higgins who had only been representing our city for 26 days but has already taken some big steps in our direction. His comments about the New York Power Authority and its $308 million surplus caused some audience reaction when he stated 76 percent of this surplus came from proceeds of sales from power generated at our Niagara Power Project. Higgins stated their current budget shows $39 million more in revenues that is not budgeted. How could we not agree there should be a dedicated stream of funding to help with Niagara Falls infrastructure improvements? He urged all elected officials to speak with one voice and gave several examples of recent progress at Buffalo’s waterfront with the aid of the Power Authority from the last 50 year relicensing and how it triggered other private and pubic development in that city.
New York Assemblyman John Ceretto stated where you were born and raised is your home forever. His family started out on 19th Street and he is eager to continue to serve as our representative in the state Assembly for another term. He noted the absence of a local representative on the Power Authority Board and urged support for this from all elected officials.
Mayor Paul Dyster spoke of his strong support for Niagara Falls block clubs. He spoke out against the city council majority’s decision to eliminate funding for the Block Club Council. It should be noted he was instrumental in supporting our retreat this year. Spurback stated volunteers are tough people and it is our city and we would continue to work with the partnerships we have made over the years. The mayor stated he just returned from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and took part in “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” advocacy and he supported the governor’s recent legislation. He felt his choice for new Police Chief Bryan DalPorto was a positive decision for the city.
Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo, who has been on the job for barely a year, has created some interesting headlines for his department with his support for assistance to recent college graduates who choose to live in Niagara Falls. I for one am a strong supporter of bringing new and younger persons who are educated and want to take part in community living even if it means helping them financially. After all, are we not financially helping bring a good percentage of our residents to come here who live on government assistance as it is? Seth has assisted in finding ways to rehab housing that can be saved and pointed to the funding for Isaiah 61 Project which is a training program to assist youth in learning a trade by working to save one house at a time. Thinking outside the box has led to several other ideas which can only help neighborhoods which in turn help to reduce crime.
Code Enforcement Director Dennis Virtuoso has always worked closely with block clubs and can be credited with turning this department into a more credible and efficient operation with ten staff members who take pride in their work. They have been able to self fund their department through sharing fines generated through Housing Court and other means. Demolitions are a priority again this coming year and that is something that block clubs have lobbied hard for over these past years. When a property is no long safe and “sound” it needs to come down.
Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas started her presentation stating “I love to come to this every year.” We love to have her as we both learn from her presence. She talked about the 90 percent of crime that is fed by the need to satisfy an addiction and how the Legislature instituted the Judicial Diversion plan in 2009 to get to the core of the problem. Individuals who tend to commit crime because of addiction have the opportunity to attend a two-year intensive program linked to a drug court and monitored on a weekly basis by the drug court and Niagara County Court judges. She has monitored 64 participants since 2010 with ten failures that were immediately sent to prison and five successes whose charges were reduced to lesser offenses or dismissed altogether. The remainders are still in the program. She spoke with a sense of pride of those who succeeded as she keeps in touch and they have become useful members of society and even “look better” she said.
Its time to stop as my numbers are up. Next week we will learn what our new police chief had accomplished in his first 25 days. He did say the department couldn’t be as effective without block clubs. Stay tuned.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.