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Falls bracing for 'disaster budget'

NIAGARA FALLS - Cities and towns across Western New York are busy putting together their budgets for the coming fiscal year.
But perhaps nowhere is the task more difficult than in Niagara Falls.
The dispute over gambling expansion between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians has put the city in a precarious financial position as it struggles to create a budget without $58 million in expected casino revenues that have not been paid in three years.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster will present the budget proposal to the City Council on Monday. Few details about the proposal have emerged, as city department heads have been instructed not to speak with the media about it in advance of the presentation.
But it's clear that most expect it to be painful.
"It doesn't look good; I know that," said Dennis F. Virtuoso, city code enforcement director. "We've been making good headway, and this casino money is really going to hurt us."
For Virtuoso, this means that unless the city finds additional grant money, as much as half of the many blighted houses in the city that need to be demolished will have to wait.
For other departments, it means that new police cars and fire trucks will have to wait.
The Public Works Department also is expected to see spending cuts, though city officials are unsure exactly how those cuts will affect the services the city has historically delivered to residents.
"We have a lot of challenges we're going to face in regards to the loss of [casino] revenue and a tax base that is pretty much flat," said City Administrator Donna D. Owens.
Departments are continuing to function, she cautioned, before noting that "we will have to look at how service levels will be [altered]."
"But there will probably be some changes, and we'll have to talk to the public once we know what those would be and manage the expectations in regards to what [this] municipality can do in terms of services," Owens said.
Dyster goes a step further, calling the budget a worst-case "disaster budget" that the city had hoped to avoid.
"We've been calling it a disaster budget because on top of all the challenges facing other upstate cities - rising costs for payroll, health care and pension - we have a special circumstance of the nondelivery of casino revenues," the mayor said.
"When you're trying to close a multimillion-dollar gap, there's going to be pain across the board - that's inevitable. "It's not confined to any one aspect of city operations."
Dyster said that for years, the city budgeted conservatively to avoid a crisis, generally depending on $18 million in casino revenues out of a roughly $100 million budget, even though the city was slated to receive more revenues from the Senecas.
The extra money in part was stowed away into a "special projects fund" to be used for new projects in the developing downtown core or rainy-day scenarios. Though the fund grew to $20 million, it has been totally depleted in the wake of the casino revenue shortage.
"It seems very unfair to us," Dyster said. "We were holding the line on taxes, we were looking to the future, . and we are resigned to use our fund balance to make the payments that were not made to us. Through no fault of our own, the City of Niagara Falls finds itself in a real budget crisis here."
State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, earlier last week questioned why the city was using the casino revenues to cover operating expenses such as salaries for full-time and seasonal workers.
Dyster, though, said that it was wise to pay staff members to oversee the distribution of the casino funds.
"You wouldn't allocate a large share of casino revenues to an entity that wasn't capable of spending those revenues wisely," he said. "It makes perfect sense to do with casino revenues; economic development is a legitimate expense."
Departments have been bracing for the release of the proposed budget.
Anticipating cutbacks, the Police Department has shifted its officers in some areas to reduce overtime.
The Community Development Department is considering reducing hours and has cut costs through retirements and attrition.
Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, meanwhile, has said the Council will not approve of a large tax increase.
The Council has already rejected Dyster's suggestion that it vote to override the 2 percent tax cap in case it cannot bridge the budget gap.
Talk of layoffs has swirled throughout City Hall for weeks, and many city workers are wondering whether they will keep their jobs.
Dyster gave no indication whether layoffs would be necessary.
"I think everyone knows that 80 percent plus of our expenses are in personnel, and we're trying to close a multimillion-dollar gap," he said. "That's all I can say about that now.
"We're absolutely dedicated to trying to provide the absolute best services that we possibly can at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers, and we've tried not to leave any stone unturned in looking for creative ways to deal with this crisis."
Dyster will present his budget proposal at 4 p.m. Monday in City Hall, 745 Main St.