Falls council offered plan for tidying up downtown

File photoCity Administrator Nick Melson approached Niagara Falls city lawmakers on Wednesday with a request to support some enhanced clean-up efforts in the downtown area. 

City revenues in 2019 are trending significantly higher than 2018, but so are expenses.

That stark picture has led to a combination of overtime and hiring freezes as the city struggles to control spending in the middle of a demanding summer tourism season.

While tourists jammed the city for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, an undermanned Department of Public Works struggled to collect and clear garbage in the South End and city police struggled to keep traffic moving while dealing with limited access for vehicles on the Rainbow Bridge as Canadian customs officials refused to open additional clearance lanes for traffic.

The somber budget assessment was delivered to Falls City Council members on Wednesday night by City Controller Daniel Morello. The controller stressed to the council that the numbers they were receiving were "unaudited and subject to change."

On the revenue side of the budget, the news was very good. After what has been described as a lackluster 2018, sales tax collections in 2019 have increased.

Niagara County sales tax collections through May are approximately $50,000 higher ($3.672 million to $3.623 million) than they were a year earlier.

That bodes well for the city, which had lowered its sales tax revenue projections in the current budget and may now exceed them.

Hotel, restaurant and utility sales tax revenues through May are more than a quarter million dollars ($280,000) higher than last year. 

Parking violations revenues are down $37,000 from 2018, but some of that money may be made up through the parking boot program. The city has already exceeded its 2019 revenue project in that account.

At the mid-way point for the budget year, the city has experienced a 17 percent increase in parking revenue, with more than $25,000 in additional collections from the newly opened surface parking lot on the former Snow Park property.

Parking meter revenue is up more than $131,000 though that increase is off-set by a similar decline in parking ramp and parking lot (not including the Snow Park lot)revenues. The city is in the process of installing additional new parking meters in the downtown area.

The parking picture is not completely rosie. The budget line for equipment repair has just $10,000 left.

And with the tourist season not even half over, the budget for temporary wages of parking employees has been 68 percent depleted.

Expenses for the city, calculated through the end of June, also raised eyebrows. 

The police and fire department budgets are both more than a quarter million dollars ($286,000 for police and $280,000 for fire) overspent. City Administrator Nick Melson told the council members those figures led him to postpone hiring new firefighters and police officers for now.

Though the administrator said he would look to hire up to 7 new firefighters and "at least 6 to 7 police officers" before the end of the year so they could meet training academy schedules. The newest police officers civil service exam is set for Sept. 14.

"I'm trying to manage this as best I can," Melson told the council.

The numbers for the Department of Public Works were even worse.

In the snow removal budget lines, the department was allocated $60,000 for overtime. It has already spent $64,000, leaving no funding for potential snow removal in November or December this year.

The call-in time budget is also $2,000 overspent and the budget for temporary workers has just $8,000 left.

At a time when Public Works should have spent just 50 percent of it's budget, the department has spent 67 percent. That led Melson to institute an overtime freeze.

However, after the trash removal snafus of the July 4th holiday, the administrator said he'll have to revisit that decision,

"We'll need to use overtime to collect garbage on the weekends," Melson said resignedly.

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