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How will the city do without him?; After serving Lockport for 38 years, Mullaney retires as a vital force in government

Richard P. Mullaney objects when people say he has been running the City of Lockport all these years.

"I get very uncomfortable with that. My job is to help the mayor and the Common Council," he said. "My biggest sin has been being outspoken from time to time. They're the ones who got elected and are answerable to the taxpayers, not me."

Friday was Mullaney's last day as a city employee. He retired after 38 years of continuous employment that took him from throwing garbage into trucks to the City Clerk's Office.

Mullaney, 58, said in an interview last week that the only reason he was able to last so long was that he knew his place and seldom, if ever, overstepped the boundaries between adviser and policymaker.

But it's no wonder that people would get the impression Mullaney was the crucial cog in the wheel.

"I work more closely with the mayor and the aldermen than any other department head with the possible exception of the corporation counsel," Mullaney said.

As five mayors and dozens of aldermen have come and gone, Mullaney has been the constant.

"This was a great job. I think it's the best job in local government because, while I don't need to be involved in everything, I know pretty much everything that goes on in local government," he said.

At budget time each fall, Mullaney was the one who took charge of the Council's work sessions, leading them through deliberations and tallying the results.

It wasn't unusual for Mullaney to lecture the aldermen on what they needed to do in order to reach a fiscal goal or keep the city solvent.

They didn't always do it, often governing with their eyes firmly focused on the next election, as politicians do.

Over the decades, Lockport sometimes has drained its "rainy day fund" for operating revenue. That's happened again in the last couple of years.

"We're getting to the point where it's very tenuous," Mullaney said.

He consistently urged a policy of "raising enough in taxes or water rates or sewer rates to pay for what I know we're going to spend. We usually underestimate our expenditures and overestimate our revenues. It should be the other way around: Overestimate our expenditures and underestimate our revenues so you build a healthy fund balance."

Mullaney also has been a key player in the city's contract negotiations with its unions.

"Our services are second to none, but they're expensive," Mullaney said. "We've done as much as any community to try to be better at the collective-bargaining table."

Mullaney's first contact with city government came in the summer of 1970, when, at age 16, he obtained a summer job in the Parks Department.

"We worked in Rollin T. Grant Gulf Wilderness Park. There were probably a dozen of us who went to work cutting trails through the nature park," Mullaney said. "We built the trails with wood chips."

Upon graduating from Lockport High School in 1971, Mullaney hung around waiting to see if he would be drafted for the Vietnam War. In the meantime, he worked at Noah's Ark, an auto parts business, and later at Sherwood Selpac.

Fortunate in the draft lottery, Mullaney entered Niagara County Community College in the fall of 1972.

After his freshman year, seeking another summer job for 1973, Mullaney found himself in the office of Kenneth F. Anderson, the city clerk and a longtime friend of his father's.

The upshot was that Mullaney was hired by the Streets Department to throw garbage.

"Bob Costello was the superintendent, a great guy," Mullaney said. "I continued whenever there was a break from school."

During summers, he worked on the paving crew.

This situation continued until the fall of 1976, when Mullaney, who had just earned a degree in business education from Buffalo State College, was hired by Mayor Michael W. Shanley as a full-time laborer.

During the Blizzard of '77, Mullaney was a snowplow driver.

"I went into work at midnight Thursday into Friday and went home 24 hours later when my truck broke down. Those people whose trucks did not break down worked 46 1/2 hours straight," Mullaney recalled.

At one point, Mullaney and Costello, driving a self-propelled snowblower, headed for Davison Road, where Rodney Conrad, the city's community development director, reportedly had abandoned his car "not far from the Davison Road Inn."

>'An ugly time'

Mullaney and Costello saw two largely buried cars, but they disagreed over which one was Conrad's. "While we were debating that, we hit a third car," Mullaney recalled.

The blizzard left two major aftereffects. "We worked 16-hour days for weeks, trying to clean up the mess," Mullaney said.

The other impact was a series of events that resulted in Mullaney changing his collar from blue to white.

Bob Richards, the city's planning and budget director, needed data from the Streets Department to fill out forms for federal disaster aid in the wake of the blizzard.

Mullaney was assigned to compile the information and did a credible enough job that the following year, when Richards' assistant left, Mullaney was appointed city budget analyst.

In March 1982, when Richards died after a long illness, Mayor Thomas C. Rotondo Jr. promoted Mullaney to budget director.

In 1985, City Hall was convulsed by a fight between Rotondo and Anderson, the veteran city clerk, which happened at the same time some aldermen were promoting departmental consolidations to save money.

"There was a play to put Ken in charge of the budget and eliminate my position," Mullaney recalled. "It was an ugly time in local government. I don't know that I've seen an uglier period. I didn't take sides in that. I tried to stay neutral. There was no reason for me to get involved."

>Rising above politics

The upshot was that Anderson retired, and Rotondo appointed Mullaney to add the clerk's title to his budget director post.

That fall, Anderson campaigned door-to-door against Rotondo, who lost his bid for re-election.

The new mayor, Raymond C. Betsch, a Republican, had to decide what to do with Mullaney, the man who had succeeded his big supporter, Anderson.

Mullaney said, "I know Ray got some pressure about not appointing me because I was a registered Democrat."

Fortunately, Betsch didn't have to decide right away. Mullaney had Anderson's unexpired term, which didn't run out until June 1987, 18 months into Betsch's administration.

Betsch then reappointed Mullaney. "Ray's one of the nicest people I ever met," Mullaney said. "I don't care whether it was Tom Rotondo or Ray Betsch, those guys were like a father to me."

Over the years, some Democrats have grumbled about Mullaney's nonpolitical stance.

Mullaney said, "I'm a fiscal conservative. I'm a social Democrat." He said he affiliated Democratic "probably for no better reason than Mike Shanley hired me, and he was a Democrat."

As Lockport's political pendulum swung, from Betsch back to Rotondo, to Republican Kenneth D. Swan, Democrat Thomas C. Sullivan and Republican Michael W. Tucker, Mullaney stayed put.

Rotondo, Lockport's longest-serving mayor, and Tucker, who will pass Rotondo's record during his new term, stand out in Mullaney's estimation of the mayors he has served.

"They all had their strengths and weaknesses. I think Mayor Rotondo was great at building consensus. He always seemed to have a 5-5 or 4-4 Council [between the parties]. Mayor Tucker has seemed to be able to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans," Mullaney said. "I like Mike's decision-making ability."

In presenting Mullaney a plaque at his last Council meeting Dec. 20, Tucker told him, "You have been an exemplary civil servant. Many's the time I've been down here on a Saturday and I hear some rustling in the clerk's office, and it's this guy getting someone a marriage license."

Tucker said, "They say everybody is replaceable, but this guy is going to be hard to replace. We're going to keep him around as a consultant. We're going to lean on him for the next year."

>Eager to be grandparent

Mullaney will be paid $1,000 a month for 12 months. He is supposed to help out with labor negotiations, the transition of budget duties into the City Treasurer's Office and mentoring his successor.

Mullaney said he could have left three years ago, when he turned 55.

"I was offered a job in the private sector, which I could have done," he said. "My daughter [Erin] wanted me to stay so I could issue her marriage license."

Mullaney did that for Erin and John Lacki last year.

"I want to be able to enjoy the health that I have," Mullaney said. "I can't if I come to work every day. My wife [Carol] and I were given the news that we're going to be grandparents in June, so we're looking forward to being able to be the doting grandparents I know we're going to be."

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com