The first of three Ward 4 citizen meetings, led Saturday morning by Olean Alderwoman Linda Edstrom, yielded some suggestions for improvements and allowed residents to air some of the complaints heard during Common Council meetings.
Many of the 40 people in the Olean Public Library's art gallery said elected officials ignored budget deficits that could soon surpass $8 million, lacked public integrity and failed to answer their questions.
Many expressed a deep affection for their home city and its quality of life, called for more business development and a smaller government work force, but voiced a range of opinions about tax rates and a proposed property revaluation.
While some were senior citizens who retired from the city's shrinking manufacturing sector, others have returned in their middle years to raise their families or to prepare for retirement. Ward 2 Alderman Mike Kayes was among those at the session.
"Government is not a business," said William Gilroy, a grandfather and pharmacist who urged officials to stop blaming each other and put personal feelings aside.
"It's not about the mayor. It's not about the Council. It just is. So let's just fix it," he said, suggesting systematic problem-solving, trimming departments with the largest budgets, privatizing some services and advertising for bids to spur competition and lower costs.
Dominick Rissi bemoaned the "wonderful place Olean was from 1964 to 1968." He said Olean Center Mall and dollar stores have caused harm while the city lacks a Barnes & Noble store or movie theater.
He pointed out that when Santa Claus Lane is lighted for the holidays, it looks like "Nirvana" and asked what is being done to bring businesses back downtown to establish a tax base and provide jobs so children will stay in the area after graduation.
"Our whole society doesn't live like that anymore," Edstrom said, adding that some investors are planning to reopen the landmark First National Bank Building at the center of downtown.
Ed Jennings, a city retiree, said the Fire Department often is criticized but is responsible for revenues of $600,000 each year, including fees for ambulance service. Bob Payne complained that the city's pioneering Economic Development Zone hasn't helped but instead has reduced the tax base by providing tax breaks for businesses.
"We have a state of calamity here," Marilyn O'Dell warned, noting the Council has no contingency funds and civil service employee wage freeze concessions in 2006-07 will give way in 2007-08 to a twofold wage increase.
"Why don't you call it what it is: a strategy of stealing from Peter to pay Paul. We're getting flimflammed out the bing-bang."
Hal Jacobi, who said he watches snowplows going over his street twice, said residents should expect fewer services and suggested they follow his example and clean out their own catch basins. He suggested cutting city staff and likened city government to a "golden calf" that the taxpayers have to keep feeding.
Unlike others in the group, Don Thierman called for tax increases and asked the identities of the 35 percent of property owners who are considered exempt.
Several in the group asked that parking meters be removed to encourage shopping.
Edstrom noted that the Council's new Finance Committee, set to meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, could help find some solutions but she later pointed out that this year's county tax increase, which was more than the city's most recent increase, has not drawn protests.
Location for the Feb. 20 and March 17 community meetings will be announced.