LOCKPORT – Niagara County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross defended the county’s economic development apparatus as a necessary adjunct to tax reduction during his State of the County speech Tuesday.
During his 36-minute speech, Ross, C-Wheatfield, acknowledged the unpopularity of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and the tax breaks it passes out, but he said many of the 65 business projects the IDA has aided in the past decade wouldn’t have considered setting up shop in the county without incentives.
“If you didn’t have abatements, if you didn’t have this type of incentives, they’d go someplace else,” Ross said. “As long as things are the way they are, you’re going to need an IDA.”
The Legislature reduced the property tax levy for 2014 by less than 1 percent. Ross noted that the county froze taxes for four years in the late 1990s, which ended with a 20 percent spike in 2002 because the county’s surpluses had been spent.
“The difference (now) is, we still have a good fund balance. We have reserves,” Ross said.
Since 2003, the county has followed a policy of setting aside 6 percent of the previous year’s spending as an untouchable reserve unless the Legislature takes a special vote to spend it. Such a motion has never been made.
“Certainly it’s a good year when you can reduce the property tax rate,” Ross said. Near the end of the speech, he added, “The Niagara County Legislature believes in smaller government. We believe in reduced spending.”
For 2014, Ross said, the county needs to negotiate a new contract with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., the county’s tourism promotion agency, which received only a one-year extension last year.
Also on the Legislature’s plate is a new contract with Gary A. Abraham, the environmental attorney the county has been paying since 2005 to prepare opposition to CWM Chemical Services’ request for state permission to dig a new hazardous waste landfill in Porter.
“Certainly, there will be a new contract,” Ross said. “It’ll be a little different. There’ll be some timelines there. We want to know how long it’s going on … We’re going to come up with a winning formula on that, too.”
He also warned that the county must remain vigilant against any Pentagon efforts to close the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, the county’s largest employer, which has survived two past closure notices.
“It’s the job of every legislator in here to do everything they can to support that Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station,” Ross said. “If we close up shop down there, we will certainly have a big problem in this county.”
In other matters Tuesday, the Legislature appointed a new county personnel officer, who acts as the county’s one-man civil service commission. William L. Paton replaces Joseph A. Vacanti Jr., a former legislator whose six-year term in the $20,000-a-year, 20-hour-a-week job had expired.
Although no dissenting votes were cast, Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, objected that Democrats didn’t even know Vacanti had quit, that there should have been a search process and that Patton has no civil service experience. Ross said Vacanti was chosen without a search, too,
Paton, 62, former GOP chairman in North Tonawanda, was general manager of Complete Homecare in the City of Tonawanda for 20 years, but said he resigned last year because of disability.
“This is an opportunity to move back in at a pace that’s right for me and right for the county,” he said.
Lawmakers also awarded a new contract to operate the restaurant at the county golf course in Lockport. Robert E. Soemann, owner of the Lockport bar Attitudes, was chosen through a sealed-bid process and will pay $10,800 a year.