The amount of money spent on travel and training for Niagara Falls employees is doubling across the board next year, prompting City Council members to question how cost-effective the trips are and whether they need to be more closely monitored.

Mayor Paul Dyster’s budget for 2010 proposes $119,600 be allocated for all departments, compared to the $64,619 put in this year. The highest increase is for City Administrator Donna Owens, whose office travel and training line is increasing from $1,000 to $7,600. Overall, Dyster’s administrative department, which also includes risk management, is almost tripling, from $8,250 to $23,200.

Owens defended the increases and emphasized that training is vital to the growth and development of any city.

“We have to invest in staff development — it’s one of the best investments a city can make,” she said. “In any profession, you have to continue to train and develop yourself.”

Councilmembers questioned the across-the-board line increases during their budget worksessions this past week. Among the departments they’ve already reviewed are planning and economic development, city clerk, city controller and assessor.

Planning and economic development’s line will more than double under Dyster’s proposal, from $3,000 to $8,000. However, Economic Development Director Peter Kay pointed out the department was merged from two separate offices last year and now has seven more employees as a result.

Assessor Dom Penale said the almost $1,000 increase in his department’s travel line is needed to train a few new hires who have replaced retired employees.

City Controller Maria Brown, whose department’s line is also doubling from $2,000 to $4,000 next year, agreed with the need to keep employees trained but said trips and conferences should be closely monitored. She said departments should seek out training closer to home instead of going out of state.

“I don’t know the reason for traveling outside of New York — that’s when it gets expensive,” she said. “Can’t we find the training in New York?”

Owens said the administration does try to seek out local training when possible but there’s also advantages in traveling to other states.

“They’re not all local and they won’t ever be all local,” Owens said. “You’re not traveling to go on vacation, you’re traveling to see what’s going on in other cities and learn best practices.”

Though councilmembers raised questions about the increases, it may not result in cuts. Chairman Chris Robins said he would rather see accountability measures put in place that determines what employees are getting out of the conferences and if they’re sharing what they learned.

“It’s hard for us to approve something like this unless we know we’re getting a return on it,” he said.

Contact reporter Rick Forgione

at 282-2311, ext. 2257.

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