Now that the dust has settled on the 2001 Niagara Falls city budget, residents and business owners should not be breathing a sigh of relief. The sticker shock we all faced with the mayor's proposed 27.4 percent homestead and 16.6 percent non-homestead tax increase has every chance of being repeated in 2002, if the City of Niagara Falls doesn't face the realities of its economic situation.
Gov. George E. Pataki's announcement of $5.1 million toward development of downtown is welcome news. However, we must look at this realistically and realize it could be too little too late. How long will it take Niagara Falls to compete on an equal level with Niagara Falls, Ont.? If the answer is 10 years, can we as a city afford to wait that long? New York City could afford to wait 10 years to develop Times Square. Niagara Falls can't.
You hear elected officials here say that we must expand our tax base. This is true. However, when you consider the realities of industrial development agencies and sales tax abatements, we will not realistically see an expansion of the tax base for well over 10 years. Developers who will offer jobs will use the employment factor as leverage against paying their fair share of taxes, and, in turn, they have over 10 years before they get full tax status.
We should be investigating several alternatives that could help reduce taxes and build our surplus fund. The Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center costs the taxpayer $1.7 million per year plus debt service. Looking at it another way, it is approximately 57 cents per $1,000 of your city tax dollars. If you are taxed on $33,000, then you pay approximately $18.81 per year for the operating of the Convention Center.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you attended an event at the Convention Center? Can we as a city afford to fund this Convention Center any longer?
Our city-owned golf course and ice pavilions are wonderful recreational facilities. As residents of this city, we should be proud to have such facilities available and located a short distance from our homes and businesses. But realistically, it is obvious we can no longer fund these facilities or even put the necessary funds in the budget to improve them, which, in turn, would allow for the city to compete with other much more modern and well-kept golf courses and ice rinks located just a stone's throw away from our city.
Why not let someone else take over these facilities and enjoy an improved golf course and ice pavilion? In return, we could perhaps reap some profit moneywise. The golf course and ice pavilion cost the city approximately $1 million per year, and the question that we seem to be unable to answer is, "Does the golf course make money?" Our auditor cannot even give us the answer to that question.
There is no question that Niagara Falls deserves the very best library that we can afford. No Council member wanted to make cuts to this facility. We put in the budget the amount of dollars that we felt we could afford to run this facility. Unfortunately, the amount, according to the library board and staff, is not enough. No one on the Council wants to curtail services. However, that is the only source of monies that can be lessened to reduce a huge tax increase. That is why my colleagues on the Council support a study being conducted to allow the library to operate with its own budget under a board of trustees. What better way to determine necessary library services then to have the public vote on a library budget and a board of trustees that will be answerable to this voting public? This will remove the library from the politics of City Hall and spare it from further possible budget cuts. The result will be a library that we deserve to have. The city (taxpayer) currently funds the library at $1.3 million.
If we were to transfer the above facility expenses to private operation, the city could realize a $4 million surplus and possibly reduce taxes, or hold the line on the current tax rate.
The city needs to go back to providing "basic services." Building a surplus is good and necessary, but not on the backs of the taxpayers for 2002.
JOHN G. ACCARDO
Councilman, City of Niagara Falls