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Niagara Legislature brushes off environmental efforts, group says

A small group of environmentalists mandated by the state to help make Niagara County green says its recommendations are being ignored by the County Legislature.

The mission of the Environmental Management Council is to make policy recommendations to the Legislature that would benefit the environment, from parklands to environmentally friendly buildings. But the members feel they're crying in the wilderness.

The Legislature has locked them out of county buildings, stopped their meager $5,000 funding and put all their suggestions on hold.

"The Legislature keeps swearing us in and ignoring us," said Bob Baxter, a leading Niagara County environmentalist. "Sending recommendations to them is the kiss of death."

Clyde L. Burmaster, chairman of the County Legislature, begged to differ. "I have seen no reports or requests from this council."

Burmaster said that in his 11 months as chairman, he has heard nothing from the environmental council, except for a phone call from Baxter about tree removal in Bonds Lake Park, a county park in the Town of Lewiston.

"We get nothing in writing from the environmental council," he said.

That's because the group lost its secretary when the funding was removed, said Gail Walder, co-chairwoman of the council.

Walder said she does the best she can by taking the minutes of meetings in longhand on a legal pad, typing them up and e-mailing them.

The Bonds Lake matter involves a potential plum pox infection of more than 2,000 stone fruit trees in a 20-acre section of the park. The county is currently felling them because the disease has struck trees along Lake Ontario north of Bonds Lake.

As for the group's funding, it was removed from the budget by County Manager Gregory Lewis. The County Legislature didn't vote on the budget item or have any part of removing it, Burmaster said.

William L. Ross, vice chairman of the Legislature, said the group could get back in the budget.

"They're very loyal," he said. "Municipalities have environmental groups that come and go. But this one meets regularly and discusses issues."
The members meet when they can find a place to meet.

The group was denied access to the county courthouse for security reasons, Burmaster said, but could meet in the Public Safety Building on Niagara Street.

That suggestion, however, has never found its way to the group.

Initially, and for several years, the unpaid members of the organization met in an anteroom to the Niagara County legislative chamber in the county courthouse. Sometimes, when the Legislature wasn't in session, they got to meet in the chamber itself. The county Economic Development Department even assigned them a secretary who took minutes. They had access to copy machines.

In 2003, members were denied the use of the legislative chamber anteroom and moved across the street to a building at the county-owned Philo Brooks Building, 59 Park Ave. A year later, the county cut off the group's funding without notifying the members.

So they drove to Lockport to hold their next regular meeting.

"It was winter," recalled Walder, who has been a member of the environmental council since the late 1970s and co-chairwoman with Jim Hoffman for the past six years. "When we arrived at the building, we found we had been locked out."

Walder said they went back across the street to the county courthouse and found a place to meet -- in the cleaning staff's lunchroom in the basement.

For the past year, they have been meeting in the amphitheater at Niagara Falls High School, thanks to one of their members, David Brooks, a library media specialist at the school.

Encouraging the county to build environmentally friendly buildings is one of the group's top priorities.

Studies have shown that while "green" buildings can cost up to 2.5 percent more to build than conventional buildings, they save 10 times the energy in heating and electricity costs.

The group's last recommendation on the subject was tabled by the Legislature.

"Our political leaders are failing to take advantage of technologies that would save millions of taxpayer dollars," Baxter said. "This is certainly an ethical failure, if not a moral one."

The county brushoff is taking its toll on members.

David Cooper, a retired neurosurgeon who sits on the Town of Lewiston Environmental Commission, was a longtime member of the group until he stopped going to meetings a year ago in protest.

"Every county must have an environmental council -- the legislation was mandated by the state," Cooper said. "We've got one in name only."

Brooks, former director of the Niagara Falls Environmental Services Department, said the county looks at environmental issues as obstacles they try to avoid.

"The Environmental Management Council was created by state law, so the county must appoint people to it," he said. "And then they don't fund it. What kind of message is that?"


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