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LOVEJOY'S FONTANA USING THE RAISE FOR DISTRICT FUND

The cottonwood tree stands tall on Bogardus Street.

It's a neighborhood nuisance, its seeds jamming air conditioners and ruining backyard parties. Appetites at a recent ox roast fled when cottonwood fluff covered the beast.

It will not stand much longer.

It's coming down because there are elected officials who, at least sometimes, display a conscience.

One of them is Rich Fontana. He's the district councilman in Lovejoy, a working class neighborhood on Buffalo's East Side.

Fontana is a dark-haired, sleek-dressing guy who used to run the family's restaurant. He ran for Council last year because he didn't like the job the incumbent was doing. He wasn't the typical worker bee for the party, just a citizen who thought he could do better.

"First, I joined a couple of block clubs," Fontana said. "Then I decided to run, with my father as campaign manager."

He won.

He has already made a difference.

Mayor Masiello signed Wednesday the jacked-up pay raises the Council voted him and itself. Masiello got a $25,000 raise, to $105,000. Council members got an $11,000 boost, to $52,000. Council President Jim Pitts took a Carl Lewis-like $27,000 leap, to $80,000.

Fontana voted against the raise. And he will not take it.

Because he legally has to take the raise, he will use the post-tax amount as a district fund.

The first project is cutting down the cottonwood tree.

He isn't alone on the Council. Dennis Manley won't take the money and run. Neither will Al Coppola. Or Joel Giambra, the city's comptroller, who turned down a $15,000 raise.

Fontana could've used the money. He and his wife are expecting their first child.

"We'll have to sacrifice some things and budget," said Fontana. "But that's what we need to do with the city budget, too."

We're used to politicians putting self-interest ahead of the public interest. It's nice when a few of them find the high road.

Granted, the mayor and Council haven't had a raise in six years. But this is one of America's poorest cities. The raises are a giant leap. It's an in-your-face insult to every taxpayer in the city.

That's especially true when the Council is a part-time job in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Each of those cities have fewer Council members than we do and hardly any support staff. Here, we pull a load of 13 full-time Council members with about 40 full-time staffers. It's bloat at its worst, costing taxpayers about $3 million a year -- before the raises.

"We should be cutting Council salaries in half to prevent career politicians from perpetuating themselves," said Giambra, the maverick comptroller whose plan to streamline government includes eliminating his own job. "Instead, we're going the other way."

South Buffalo's Manley isn't taking the money either. He joined the Council last year, after 30 years at Niagara Mohawk.

"I remember being on the other side of the fence," said Manley. "I know I would've been hot about this."

The Council's $11,000 raise is equal to nearly half the median household income in the city.

"I couldn't in good conscience take it," said Manley, "then visit a senior center where everybody just got their garbage tax bill."

Like Fontana, Manley will put the money into a district fund.

Coppola isn't taking the money, either.

"All the city's union contracts come up next year," said Coppola. "How can we offer city workers zeroes after taking that kind of raise?"

Granted, there's political capital in just saying no. Giambra, in particular, is thinking about a county executive run.

That's OK. It's the way it should be. You earn voter support by doing the right thing. Politicians would be less obsessed with endorsements if they had more faith in voters' intelligence, their ability to recognize and reward good deeds.

They understand it in Fontana's Lovejoy district.

Most of the folks at the Monsignor Geary senior apartments Friday knew all about the City Hall raises, and Fontana's decision.

"The city is going to hell, and they're giving themselves raises?" said Dorothy, who declined to give her last name.

"My Social Security check is $897 a month," said Mary Peters. "Their raises are as much as I get in a year."

Next year, the entire Council is up for re-election. Voters have long memories.

Every time folks in Lovejoy see the stump of that cottonwood tree, it'll remind them: Not everybody takes the money and runs.

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