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Falls receives payment for long overdue electric bill City took three years to charge vendor

A controversial electric bill that the city waited more than three years to send has been paid by the company that leases a walkway in the heart of the downtown tourist district.

East Mall Entertainment, a company led by businessman Joseph Anderson, paid the city $44,399.10 on Nov. 14 for electricity use on the city-owned walkway that runs between the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel and the former Wintergarden.

City Council members complained two years ago that the city never sent an invoice for private electricity usage on the walkway after it leased out the vending rights to the site in 2004.

Anderson said he has been waiting to receive a bill and did not contest the estimated charges when the invoice arrived.

"We budgeted for it," Anderson said last week. "We put the money aside, and we asked them to send us a bill."

Mayor Vince Anello blamed delays in sending the bill on a state agency that regulates utilities.

The city installed meters two years ago on the walkway to gauge electricity use, but Anello said the state's Public Service Commission initially prevented the city from using its own meters to estimate charges.

City Engineer Robert Curtis had to negotiate with the agency to get permission to send the bill, Anello said.

The invoice might be the last utility bill the city will send to East Mall Entertainment.

New electric meters to monitor future usage were installed this summer during a construction project to rebuild the walkway. East Mall Entertainment now will be billed directly by the utility company, Curtis said.

The city has not installed meters on two other city-owned sites that are leased to private companies -- the West Pedestrian Mall and the Hyde Park ice pavilion -- and does not bill for electric usage on those sites.

The East Pedestrian Mall, which also is known as Old Falls Street, is a one-block walkway that runs between Third and First streets and also serves as the entrance to Conference Center Niagara Falls. USA Niagara completed a $3.4 million project to reconstruct the walkway this summer to add a new cobblestone road, wider sidewalks and new benches, trees and lights. The project reopened the site to vehicular traffic during the off-season.

Construction blocked the walkway and prevented vending carts from operating on the site this summer.

Anderson, who also controls companies that own the former Wintergarden building and the Quality Suites and Hotel on Rainbow Boulevard, is in the early stages of developing a new concept for the area that could include building a new hotel on the site of the Wintergarden.

Anderson also envisions converting glass-encased areas on the walkway into small shops and retail spaces.

"Things have to be done and kept clean," Anderson said. "It will look like a nice retail section."

Equipment and fixtures in the Wintergarden site were sold during a public auction last week to prepare for demolition.

Anderson's company has paid $58,500 to lease the walkway since East Mall Entertainment signed a no-bid contract with the city for outdoor concession rights to the block. The agreement can be extended up to 30 years.

Anello has been criticized for accepting a $40,000, no-interest loan from Anderson to help Anello's private business in 2003, when Anello was a City Council member, shortly before he became mayor. Anello has said the loan was not connected with the East Mall lease or other business Anderson's companies have conducted with the city.

e-mail: djewell@buffnews.com

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