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State board offers advice, but no money to cash-strapped Falls

A state board that doles out advice and grants to financially distressed communities offered some suggestions -- but no money -- to Niagara Falls.

The city should reassess its properties and get police officers to work more hours, according to the Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments.

The board can award large grants to communities in financial turmoil, if the communities try to implement its recommendations.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the city could use the board's funding, especially since the city's $12 million a year in Seneca Niagara Casino revenues are again endangered by a dispute between the Seneca Nation and the state.

Niagara Falls last carried out a citywide property revaluation in 2003. At current tax rates, the board estimated that reassessing properties could bring in an additional $9 million a year.

"It's been a very long time since we've done a reassessment," Dyster said. "That's something that we're interested to talk to the (City) Council about, but I think it's not in the immediate future. "

Dyster said wants to move forward with the state board at some point, "look systematically at all their recommendations, and then map out strategy for trying to implement as many of them as possible."

"There are new challenges and pressures with the Seneca issue that we will be monitoring closely," said Todd Scheuermann, chairman of the restructuring board. "We will remain in a position to step forward and provide assistance. At this time, the board is not recommended (by its staff) to provide any grant assistance, but we would reserve that right with our ongoing engagement with the city."

Also, the board said the Falls should look into changing the work schedule at the Police Department. Dyster said for more than 30 years, patrol officers have been scheduled for two days off after every four days of work, instead of the more typical work schedule of five days on, two days off.

The board estimated that if the city negotiatiated a schedule change with the police union, officers would work an additional 136 hours per year, which could save the city as much as $1.1 million a year. The current schedule "will force more people to be in rotation," said Timothy Ryan, the board secretary.

The state board report noted that Niagara Falls police command staffing per shift is slightly higher than average, and suggested allowing attrition of command ranks to eventually save $300,000 a year.

Dyster said a new police contract did cut one lieutenant position, which he said will save the city $120,000 a year.

"We were fortunate to get that," he said.

The state board suggested turning over dispatching duties to Niagara County, as all other municipal police and fire agencies in the county have, except for the Lockport police.

Dyster said he wants to investigate objections raised by North Tonawanda police to countywide dispatching before committing Niagara Falls to making that change. The board report said the city could obtain a grant if it works to share dispatching and civil service functions.

Persuading the city's union workers to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premiums could save $1.3 million a year. Dyster said three public safety unions signed new contracts this year committing newly hired employees to pay that percentage, but current employees won't have to. Before the new contracts, the city received only 1.1 percent of health insurance costs from its employees.

The state board also suggested that a couple of city department mergers could save money. It proposed merging Engineering with Public Works and merging Planning and Environmental Services with Community Development.

Niagara Falls' two state legislators, State Sen. Robert G. Ortt and Assemblyman Angelo J. Morinello, issued a joint statement calling the restructuring board's recommendations "a starting point and blueprint for a systematic restructuring of city operations. Without drastic changes, the city is heading for a financial control board."

A video of the meeting, however, shows that no one on the board ever mentioned a possible control board for Niagara Falls.

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