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On the ballot in Evans: Upsizing the downsized Town Board

It has been eight years since the downsizing winds hit Erie County, and voters in Evans will decide on Election Day if it will be the second town since then to upsize its government.

Evans was one of five towns in Erie County that voted to reduce the number of board members from five to three from 2009 to 2012. The others included Alden, Hamburg, Orchard Park and West Seneca. In votes to increase the size since then, only Hamburg decided to have a larger board.

Supporters of increasing the size of Evans' three-member board cite the difficulty in getting work done with just three members.

But those who like the status quo point to the town's financial difficulties. Having five members on its Town Board didn't seem to help when Evans spent millions of dollars on a water project that nearly caused the town to go bankrupt, they say. Residents will be paying surcharges until 2040 to pay for the water improvements, including a new water tower that has not been built yet.

"Taxes have been raised 20 percent in the last two years. It still isn't enough to bail them out of the red," Cheryl St. George-Calleri said. "Upsize, are you kidding me? What's in the drinking water?"

She campaigned in 2009 to reduce the size of the board from five to three by eliminating two council positions, and she's a leader in the fight this time. The group lays out its positions on a website, Upsizeno.org.

The case for a larger board comes down to two points: Now that the town does have financial problems, it makes sense to have more people working on them, and the state's Open Meetings Law makes it difficult to do business.

"The problem with a three-man board is you cannot efficiently work and get things done," Councilwoman Jeanne Macko said.

She said the board meets regularly, but board members can't talk about town business outside an official meeting because it would violate the state's Open Meetings Law.

"It takes forever, because you can't talk about town business," she said.

The group fighting the upsizing said meetings are illegal only if proper notice is not given. Taxpayers designed an app they said would help with the notification process, but said the board was not interested in using it.

Macko said she proposed a referendum to increase the board's size because the town had received several letters about it.

"I'm here for the voice of the taxpayers. I brought the resolution up, because that’s what they're talking about," she said.

Voters will decide on the referendum in the Nov. 7 election.

Councilmen are paid $15,300 a year, and with health insurance and benefits, it could cost the town as much as $40,000 a year for each new councilman, or $80,000 for two, both sides said.

Councilman Dennis Feldmann, who is not seeking re-election this year, thinks having five members working together is better than three. He worked on a larger board when he was a member of the Lake Shore Central School Board.

"The three-person board, it's great, if you just have basic issues," he said.

He said the town needs five members on the board to help it get through its difficult financial situation, but he said it was "definitely" a more political board with five members than it is with three.

Town Supervisor Mary Hosler said she favors a three-person board.

Activist Kevin Gaughan, who championed the downsizing movement in Erie County, said he is busy with his efforts to relocate the golf course in South Park and redevelop the Delaware Park golf course, and cannot become involved in the Evans vote this year.

"At the heart of my movement is the idea that citizens should make these decisions. Any time residents have this opportunity, as they have in Evans, I think is a healthy occasion," Gaughan said. "Given the fragile state of the town's fiances, I'm confident Evans voters will make the right decision."

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