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Farmers say coalition left them out

Of all the cheap electrical power that will be doled out in Niagara County, the farmers will get none.

Agriculture, the county's leading industry, was completely ignored by the Niagara Power Coalition, Paul Bencal, president of the Niagara County Farm Bureau, said Friday.

"We went to the coalition time after time and the answer was always a flat-out no," Bencal said.

Bencal and several county farmers aired their grievances about the crippling cost of power and several other issues at an informal lunch meeting with Patrick M. Hooker, the new commissioner in the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Hooker, on his first official visit to Niagara County, toured the Niagara Wine Trail and visited local farms. The two-day trip and the round-table discussion in the VFW hall in this northwestern county village was coordinated by Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Lewiston. DelMonte sits on the Agriculture Committee in the State Assembly.

The Niagara County Farm Bureau had asked for a single megawatt of low-cost power, which would have amounted to savings of about $240,000 a year for all 800 farms in the county. Niagara County, by comparison, will receive 9 megawatts, starting in September. The City of Niagara Falls will receive 5.5 megawatts. The Town of Niagara, the smallest municipality in the county, will receive half a megawatt.

"We're losing two or three farms every year," Bencal said. "That low-cost power could save a lot of farmers from going bankrupt."

Low prices for commodities from corn to milk make it hard to pay bills, the farmers said. Higher milk prices recently helped dairy farmers, but the money is gone as soon as they bank the checks.

Sharon Smith, who runs a 300-acre dairy farm in Middleport with her husband, David, said they recently received their biggest milk check in 21 years, but it all went to pay past bills. "It barely touched all the losses we've suffered over the last two years because of low milk prices," Smith said.

Hooker listened intently to the farmers' plight and encouraged them to keep plugging away. "Things can change," he said.

The coalition negotiated with the New York Power Authority for millions in cash and low-cost electricity over the next 50 years for Niagara County, the City of Niagara Falls, the towns of Niagara and Lewiston and three school districts: Lewiston-Porter, Niagara Falls and Niagara-Wheatfield.

The coalition and its former executive director, Mark S. Zito, were slammed by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli in an audit report released Thursday for "a complete lack of financial oversight." The coalition paid more than $141,000 to Zito, his son and fiancee as well as attorneys and consultants. Zito could not be reached.


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