Nine of the city’s BlackBerrys are gone.
Golf course and youth activity workers will no longer be able to use cell phones and pagers.
Three-quarters of the money set aside for hiring outside lawyers to fight lawsuits was wiped out.
Few departments were spared in dozen of cuts made by the Niagara Falls City Council last week during two budget meetings, in which eight of the mayor’s appointments were eliminated and 20 percent of overtime costs were slashed.
The cuts — some of which will likely be vetoed by Mayor Vince Anello — could set off a budget storm as city leaders work to finalize details of the city’s 2006 spending plan by a Dec. 15 deadline.
They also raise unresolved questions about the way the city’s public works and parks services will run and who will oversee them next year.
The council, in a 3 to 1 vote, eliminated four division management positions that oversaw parks, streets, parking facilities and the central garage, and replaced them with two directors that would run two separate departments — parks and public works.
The move essentially restructures
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public works and parks and puts back a supervisory hierarchy that was in place before Anello took office.
“That’s going back to reducing the level of supervision, which created the problems in the first place,” Anello said of the public works changes.
The council also moved a former county legislator who now works for the city from the golf course to a job as a full-time safety officer. Control of the golf course will likely fall under the parks director as a result.
Councilman Lewis “Babe” Rotella, who pushed through many of the personnel changes along with Councilmen Robert Anderson Jr. and Glenn Choolokian, said they would like to see all of the duties and control of the city’s public works corporation yard on New Road fall under the new Department of Public Works director. The city’s parks, golf course and parking lots would be overseen by the Department of Parks director.
Anderson acknowledged that the city would lose what he called “span of control” — or the ability to tightly control workers through a handful of supervisors — but said the city would see savings instead.
Rotella believes it was inefficient for public works and parks employees to switch between divisions when their work was needed in different areas.
“The cost of doing business like this was too great,” he said.
While the changes within public works and parks cut $170,778 in salaries from the budget, plus benefits for four workers, the two newly created department heads would each earn $56,000, under the council’s plan.
The four eliminated division managers currently make between $30,888 and $42,536.
Anderson defended placing the pay for the public works and parks directors at $56,000, which is $20,000 more than three of the division managers in public works and parks currently make.
“You’re talking about added responsibility,” said Anderson, noting that the duties of five jobs would be replaced by two directors.
While the council has financial control of the positions that are created within each department, day-to-day operations, including hiring supervisors and running departments, belongs with the mayor and his administration.
The council’s decisions last week — which contradicted Anello’s vision for the departments, as well as votes Rotella and Anderson cast last year — left Anello looking for more direction from the council.
Anello said he believes parks and public works services has been more productive and efficient since he broke up the departments into a handful of divisions.
“The biggest concern that I have in general is the changes that they made without providing the rationale,” Anello said. “They might have a perfectly good reason for what they’re doing, but they never discussed it or explained it to the administration.”
Choolokian said the council looked to cut areas of the budget they believed would not affect city services and would not cost rank-and-file jobs. Trimming overtime and temporary payroll lines, he said, was an alternative to cutting workers.
“Thank god we cut the overtime and we didn’t cut positions,” Choolokian said. “Times are tough.”
Rotella said council members spoke to residents, department heads and workers throughout the year to decide what areas of the budget to trim.
He contends the decision to cut several of Anello’s appointments was not political, but instead was driven by a desire to reduce a proposed tax increase of 6 percent for homeowners.
“We have one goal here: It’s to try to get this budget down to at least 3 percent instead of 6 percent,” Rotella said. “We’re going to have a water rate increase. Somewhere along the line, you have to draw the line.”
Choolokian said the council has no power over who Anello hires to fill the newly created public works and parks director posts.
Like Anello, Council Chairman Charles Walker, who opposed many of the personnel changes, is concerned that the council’s decision to cut more than $300,000 from overtime and temporary payroll lines could hurt the city if it violates contractual work rules.
Walker would like to see the city’s expenses addressed when the unions and the administration negotiate contracts this year.
“The problem is, it’s getting to the point that you can’t find the money in the budget now,” Walker said. “You’re going to have to negotiate the savings at the bargaining table.”
While the council approved dozens of changes to Anello’s $78.13 million spending proposal, the cuts added up to less than 1 percent of the 2006 budget.
Trudi Renwick, senior economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that looks at budgetary policy in New York State, said many upstate cities are facing budget dilemmas like Niagara Falls as city leaders try to trim government to correspond with shrinking populations.
“You still need to plow the same streets. It doesn’t matter if one out of every three houses is empty,” Renwick said. “I think there are a lot of those kinds of — I would call them almost economies of scale — that are really hurting cities with declining populations.”
While the council has focused on reducing taxes for local landowners, Anello said there are other areas of his proposed budget that need to be addressed.
City leaders expect an auditor from the state comptroller’s office to release a report from a review of the proposed Niagara Falls budget this week.
Still included in the budget is more than $3 million in one-time revenues, including a signing bonus from the New York Power Authority. Anello said there is little he can do to change that or the fact that the city currently has almost no fund balance.
“One-time revenues are a big concern to me, but unless someone comes up with an alternative, we’re very concerned,” Anello said.
Nine of the city’s BlackBerrys are gone.
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