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Niagara Falls City Council votes to use tourism fund to pay for district’s summer camp

NIAGARA FALLS – City lawmakers on Monday agreed to use $100,000 from the city’s tourism fund to pay for a four-week summer camp that’s been funded for a decade by the Niagara Falls School District.

The move comes a week after Mayor Paul A. Dyster’s administration instituted a spending and hiring freeze in city departments, and two weeks after the city learned it ran a $7.6 million deficit last year.

One of the region’s top tourism officials and the head of the city’s Tourism Advisory Board urged lawmakers not to use tourism funding – generated through the city’s bed tax – for the expense.

“It shouldn’t be a place to go every time your budget didn’t work out the way you thought it would,” said Lisa A. Vitello, who heads the Tourism Advisory Board.

School officials had cut the $145,000 summer camp from the 2015-16 budget that voters approved in May, but Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco proposed to fund the camp with some unanticipated state aid the district received late in the budgeting process.

Earlier this month, the School Board put on hold a proposal to fund the camp.

Under a city law, 80 percent of the city’s bed tax revenue is allocated to the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp., the destination-marketing agency charged with drawing visitors to the Falls and Niagara County. Five percent of the bed tax revenue is for the city’s administrative costs, while 15 percent may be used for city purposes.

Despite that wiggle room, John H. Percy Jr., head of the Tourism & Convention Corp., urged lawmakers to find another source of funds for the camp.

“You open up Pandora’s box by dipping into a tourism fund for community projects,” Percy said.

The city started the year with $389,000 in its tourism fund, and had a balance of about $154,000 after Monday’s Council meeting.

School Board President Russell J. Petrozzi was one of the district officials who, following the School Board’s action earlier this month, approached the city about the potential for funding support.

The proposal to provide city funding put forward by the mayor got the support of three City Council members – Chairman Andrew P. Touma, Robert A. Anderson Jr. and Charles A. Walker.

Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian cast the only vote against the spending proposal.

Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti, who works for the district as a teacher, abstained from the vote, citing her employment.

Touma, who also works for the district as dean of students at LaSalle Preparatory School, said he received legal advice from Corporation Counsel Craig H. Johnson that he was legally permitted to vote because the funding isn’t actually going to the district, but instead the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, which operates the camp.

Touma said he supported the spending because the city has not invested enough in youth, while it has spent money in infrastructure investments, especially downtown.

Having the summer camp, which is slated to start in early July, gives young people a place to feel safe and build character, Touma said.

“This is a quality of life decision,” he said.

The camp, which operates four hours a day and includes lunch and a variety of organized sports activities, is not run by the school district, so the employees of the camp are not district workers. That means they can be paid at a lower rate than if they were hired directly by the district, officials said.

School Board members on hand at Monday’s Council meeting said before the vote that should the city agree to provide funding, the district would be able to restore funding for the modified sports program to the tune of $50,000 to $75,000.

The modified sports program had also been cut in the school budget.

It didn’t appear likely that any of the funding freed up by the city’s allocation would be used to restore any more jobs in the district, board members said.

Under Bianco’s latest proposal, six positions totaling about $37,000 would be restored thanks to the additional state aid. A total of 45 job cuts had been called for in the district’s spending plan.