Niagara Falls’ new courthouse and police station has moved from theory to reality. By all accounts the North Main Street project is headed toward an on-time May 2009 opening.

But the folks who are paid $14,000 per month to oversee the effort are having trouble pinning down the cost overruns for the project. In fact, there’s a dispute over just how much the building is supposed to be costing the city in the first place.

LiRo Engineers is the firm managing the project. Its representative, David Carr, reported to the City Council this week that the cost is “slightly over budget right now.”

“Slightly” is a relative term. Just how much over the $47.5 million figure that’s now being used as the base price? No one’s really sure. You’d think that for its $14,000 monthly fee, some of the number crunchers at LiRo could sit down with their calculators and come up with an accurate figure.

Now, City Comptroller Maria Brown is saying the base cost is not supposed to exceed $45 million, because that’s all the city is authorized to borrow to pay for the courthouse. Again, you’d think someone would have come up with an accurate number for the building before work began.

So, the overrun is either slight, or slight-plus, depending on whose initial cost figure you use. Submit this kind of work for a grade as a student accountant and you’d be packing up the stuff in your dorm room right now. You’d have flunked out.

Not only is the courthouse numbers game a disappointment, but there’s a wider problem that is even more disturbing. It is the attitude toward money coming to the city from the Seneca Niagara casino slot machines.

Bonds used to build the courthouse are to be paid off from the casino cash. Those in charge of allocating that money have developed the attitude that somehow it’s found money, so they can play fast and loose with it. The attitude appears to be that since it’s not coming from the property or sales taxes, that it can be doled out at random; that projects paid for with it don’t really need close scrutiny. After all, it’s not taxpayers’ money, it’s casino money.

That’s a bad attitude. As we’ve stated before, the casino cash is a golden opportunity for the city to catch up on all the things it’s neglected over the years. We’ll list them again: Streets, sidewalks, tree trimming; we can go on and on. Every time casino money is wasted, it’s a wasted opportunity to make Niagara Falls a better place to live.

Citizens need to hold their elected officials to a high standard when it comes to spending that money. The future of this city depends upon it.

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