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Falls lawmakers vote to establish citizen budget panel

NIAGARA FALLS – A call for volunteers: Help us with our struggling financial situation.

That was the message the City Council sent last week when it called for the establishment of a “financial advisory panel” to offer assistance to lawmakers on various fiscal matters.

“There’s a lot of residents that can offer their expertise and they want to get involved and we should allow them to get involved, those people who have that ability to make some suggestions to us,” said Council Chairman Andrew P. Touma.

“It’s up to us whether or not we want to accept the recommendations or the suggestions.”

Lawmakers are still reeling from the city budget process late last year, which resulted in a property tax increase and a 6.5 percent increase in overall spending and came with the threat of layoffs for some city employees. The city also used nearly $5 million in savings to plug a budget hole.

The Council got Mayor Paul A. Dyster’s proposed budget 37 days late and had less time than usual to make changes to the spending plan.

During and since that episode, lawmakers have talked about reforming the city’s budget process.

The measure adopted by lawmakers sets up a panel of no more than seven members whose terms would expire no later than the end of the year. Interested people are asked to submit their resumes to the Council office in City Hall.

According to the plan, sponsored by Touma, the panel would work with City Controller Maria C. Brown and her staff, as well as other department heads, to gather the information it believes is necessary for its analysis.

The panel will not have access to “confidential supervisory or other confidential information, and will not have access to or discuss any non-public information regarding specific city financial matters,” according to the Council resolution.

Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti cast the only vote opposing the measure.

She said she preferred the city go through the state’s program, the Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments – which the Council has twice rejected joining.

“I just feel that if we open this board up locally that it’s going to create more problems than it solves,” Grandinetti said, “and I think eventually if we don’t make the right choices and make some of these changes soon that we are going to open ourselves up to a control board.”

The city has the chance to receive the same type of advice from the state panel, which also brings with it the chance for the city to receive funding if it accepts the advice, Grandinetti said.

“We’re always complaining that the state doesn’t want to help us,” she said. “The state wanted to help us on this one and we turned our back on it.”

Though Grandinetti was the only lawmaker to vote against the panel’s creation, Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian expressed doubt that such a panel would provide any real help to lawmakers. He called it “just another layer” that lacks the power to “force the issue.”

“If the administration and the Council’s not on the same page, it doesn’t matter who gives up the advice,” Choolokian said.

Choolokian said he voted for the measure because it was important to Touma.

Touma said he also would like to see the city enter the state’s program, but at this point it’s not happening.

“All of us do the best we can to represent the public. We ask a lot of questions. We certainly research and study,” Touma said, “but there are a lot of people within our community that are very talented and skilled and they want to get involved.

“So let’s give them an opportunity to get involved in this forum where they can give us some recommendations, come up with some possibly new ideas that generate some change. And that’s all we’re asking.”