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COUNCIL TO BEGIN WORK ON ELIA BUDGET

With Mayor Irene J. Elia's proposed $107 million budget in hand, City Council members are preparing to start their work on the city's 2002 spending plan.

The Council will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday for its first joint discussion since Elia presented her plan Monday. Meanwhile, they have asked City Controller Maria C. Brown for backup information. Councilwoman Barbara A. Geracitano said she is interested in how many new positions or upgrades are contained in Elia's plan. She also wants answers from department heads on how they will operate with less staff.

City Administrator Albert T. Joseph said the budget contains only two new positions: a $45,000 budget director, which he said has been recommended by the state, and a $40,000 deputy director of parks and public works. Elia's administration has been trying to restore that position since it came into office in the belief that the largest city department needs a second supervisor who is not a member of the union.

Some Council members question adding new positions when the administration is calling for layoffs of 23.5 workers and the elimination of about 17 vacant jobs.

Council Chairman Anthony F. Quaranto said he thinks the city has been getting along fine since the budget director position was eliminated in 1996. But he's beginning to think more supervision is needed in parks and public works, especially in view of road paving materials given to a private company by a city employee last summer.

Councilwoman Frances M. Iusi continues to support restoring the deputy's job. But Councilman Joseph R. D'Angelo said unless he hears a persuasive rationale on why the job is needed, he'll vote against it again.

D'Angelo and others are concerned about eliminating 26 police and fire jobs, especially in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the go-ahead given by the Assembly this week for a Native American casino in the city. The Seneca Nation of Indians still must approve the agreement.

"I'm not too keen on the public safety cuts, but I don't want to raise the tax levy," he said.

That's exactly the dilemma facing the city, according to Councilman Paul A. Dyster.

"We can neither afford higher taxes nor to significantly reduce services. It's not just a tax increase that provides pain. So does the loss of services. It's our job on the Council to set the balance," he said.

"We shouldn't be concentrating on just getting to (a zero increase on the tax levy)," Councilman Charles A. Walker agreed. "We still have to concentrate on making the decisions that are going to move the city in the right direction. To get to zero, how much did we give up as far as city services?"

D'Angelo and Geracitano said they would restore public safety funding if they could find the dollars elsewhere in the budget. Councilman John G. Accardo said he wants assurances from the police and fire chiefs that public safety won't be compromised by the cuts. Otherwise, he said, he would look for other job cuts, because "nobody wants to raise taxes."

Meanwhile, the board of directors of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday voted to support Elia's request to defer part of next year's equalization of the two-tier tax rate if the Council follows through on reducing jobs and overall spending, according to Fred Caso, vice president. While the chamber has fought for elimination of the two-tier tax rate for 15 years, the directors said they could go along with Elia's proposal this once because it was accompanied by an effort to cut spending.

The chamber said the bottom line is that taxes are too high for both homeowners and businesses.

Brown said the mayor reduced department heads' initial requests by $4.1 million. Otherwise the tax rate would have increased 22 percent, she said.

If the Council goes along with the deferment, homeowners would see a 9-cent increase rather than a 70-cent increase on the current rate of $15.11 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Commercial properties would get a 94-cent decrease instead of a $1.97 decrease in the rate of $30.63 per $1,000.

e-mail: jscelsa@buffnews.com

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