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GOP race: deja vu all over again Cliffe, Demler square off once more for Wheatfield supervisor nomination

The Republican primary for supervisor gives voters a rematch of the 2009 contest that remains a topic of discussion.

Two years ago, newcomer Robert B. Cliffe handed longtime Supervisor Timothy E. Demler his first defeat in 14 years.

Cliffe beat Demler in the Republican, Independent and Conservative party primaries. Later, Cliffe handily won the general election with the popular Demler scraping up an impressive, yet insufficient, 829 write-in votes. Cliffe also beat the endorsed Democratic candidate by 600 votes.

The primary upset still prompts talk among local politicians and political observers about the how's and why's of Demler's fall from grace. The assorted reasons included his brash and domineering style of leadership, a huge budget deficit, accusations of philandering with the wife of a Republican Party committeeman and claims he overstepped his authority by pushing aside the Zoning Board of Appeals.

This time, Cliffe is the incumbent supervisor, and Demler is trying to stage a comeback.

Even though the smoke has cleared, both men listed a remnant from the previous fight as their main reason for running: town finances.

Cliffe says he wants to stay in the supervisor's office to continue "to keep the finances of the town moving in the right direction."

After this year, most of the budget lines should be cleared up, he said, but for now, Wheatfield needs to "continue going with the trend to go forward."

He takes pride in what he claims has been a major accomplishment: returning Wheatfield to financial solvency.

When Cliffe took over last year as chief fiscal officer as well as supervisor, he inherited a debt-buried budget. A state comptroller's audit found the town had accumulated a $2.7 million deficit by the end of 2009, blamed mostly on inflated revenue projections and putting a $2 million sewer grant into the general fund instead of paying off the sewer debt. Whether the town needs to pay that back remains unresolved.

The latest audit with numbers from the end of last year show the combined deficit has decreased significantly and the general fund is in better shape, with an unreserved fund balance of $361,965, according to an audit conducted for the town by Drescher & Malecki LLP, a local private auditing firm.

To move from red to black, Cliffe had to tighten the budget belt and reduce, or do away with, some programs. They included mosquito spraying, bus transportation for out-of-town senior citizens to town events, cellphones for town employees and a summer youth program, fireworks, as well as several other expenditures instituted under the Demler administration.

> Budget director gets credit

To deal with an $800,000 deficit in the Highway Department, the board also imposed a town highway tax for last year, which Cliffe said he hopes will be "reduced drastically" this year.

He has credited much of the financial progress to Edward D. Mongold, a municipal accountant hired last year as budget director. The town previously had relied on a group of volunteers. Auditors have validated Mongold's budgets.

Cliffe, who served as town justice before being elected and is a former Niagara Wheatfield School Board member, said he wants to keep working with the Town Board "because we're not around the bend yet."

Upcoming issues include:

* Negotiating a new contract with the Teamsters local that represents 14 highway and six water and sewer workers.

* Settling a pact with the North Tonawanda Library, which wants the town to increase its contribution to $100,000 from $45,000 a year.

* Deciding how to proceed with the Fairmount Park reconstruction project, which would require $350,000 in matching grant funds.

* Resolving the payback of $2 million in sewer funds to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Cliffe says he takes his opponent seriously, but, when asked about a debate with Demler, he said: "I don't think so. What would you gain? Everything he shows is the same old crap. It's been debunked, not by me but by the professionals.

"He's got enough of a following to get the required number of signatures [however]." He's got the right to run."

Cliffe said 20 of 21 GOP committee members were on his side and Demler "probably doesn't have five friends in the [town Republican] club."

James D. Heuer, chairman of the Town Republican Party, also said he would not support a debate.

"We've tried it before, and it was not very successful," Heuer said. "[Demler] can talk anybody into anything, but he'll talk for five minutes, and you'll forget what you asked."

> Demler points to legacy

Demler wants to reclaim his legacy. The former seven-term supervisor said he is tired of watching what Cliffe and the current Town Board are doing to what he achieved while leading the town for 14 years.

He maintains that many of the amenities that he instituted and programs started during his tenure were cut unnecessarily from the budget. Demler always has disputed those moves and has firmly maintained that "the town was not broke and was not in danger."

"The numbers don't add up. It's a magical deficit," he said. "Municipalities can't carry deficits. You have to pay them off. I used the surplus to pay it off."

His numbers show that all the various deficits have been covered. The fire protection account, he said, had a shortfall because of increased retirement costs, while the investment crash in 2008 put another $93,000 hole in the general fund and the highway fund had a deficit of $300,000, which he blamed on that department's overbudgeting.

He said the EPA money from 2005 was a member item supported by then-Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, and everything but $500,000 was returned to the sewer fund via budget transfers.

"They took away the animal control officer, mosquito spraying, the flags on the boulevard, fireworks, concerts, you name it," he said. "What Cliffe is trying to do is turn back every program I started and take apart my 14 years."

If the town really had no money for programs, how did it "find money to give [Town Attorney Robert] O'Toole another $30,000 and pay for department head vehicles?" Demler asked.

He said the move that really fired him up and convinced him to run was the board's deal with the YMCA to operate the youth center. The agreement calls for the YMCA to use the center for the summer and pay all utilities -- estimated at about $9,000 -- as well as a percentage of the summer program costs while running a child care program.

"What really sent me over the edge was when they gave away the youth center," Demler explained. "For $9,000? Are you kidding me? It's amazing that they always find $9,000 or $10,000 for Wendel [Duscherer Architects and Engineers], then they charge families $125 a week to use a building we already own.

"They've lied and slandered me and narrowly attained victory," Demler added of his opponents.

Although he didn't dispute all the numbers presented in the audits, he questioned their interpretations. He said he has three local certified public accountants who will support him, and will name them closer to the Sept. 13 primary.

"The taxes, the lying, taking away programs. They've raised the water rates yet they're amassing a half-million a year in water surplus. You don't raise taxes when you have the money."

He said his relationship with the local Republicans began to deteriorate when he opposed some of their plans. "I wouldn't take my orders from the committee," he said. "If you fall from grace, they will do what they do."

He was publicly accused of a romantic relationship with the wife of a committeeman. Although he flatly denied it at the time, the committee revoked its endorsement of him about a week later.

He still maintains "there was nothing wrong going on."

Demler said his relationship with Tracy Gurnett, a town employee, actually started in July 2009.

Demler said he lost because he didn't campaign hard enough but now will employ different tactics.

"We need to get out door-to-door this time," he said of his campaign staff. "I'm hitting as many doors as possible. I've had to go to at least 800 homes."

> Little support from 'elite'

Along with the signs, Tom Stevenson, Demler's ally and campaign "manager," said the strategy includes appearances on a local Web interview show, letters to the editor and, of course, pounding the pavement.

Is there much Republican support? "Among the party elite, probably not," Stevenson said, "but among others, definitely yes. We've had 90 percent signing [petitions]."

To pad his chances, Demler has doubled down on the Democratic line, too. He is suing the Niagara County Board of Elections in an effort to force a write-in primary for the Democratic nomination for supervisor. Craig Schultz is pursuing a similar effort to run for the Town Board.

The Board of Elections disallowed their "opportunity to ballot" petitions on Aug. 5 and State Supreme Court Judge Richard C. Kloch Sr. upheld that ruling on Thursday. The endorsed Democratic candidates are Donald Wallace for supervisor and Robert Pino for councilman.