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Pay cut is OK’d for city treasurer in Lockport; referendum on post is set for Nov. 3

LOCKPORT – The Common Council voted, 5-1, Wednesday to cut the city treasurer’s pay by almost $27,000, effective Jan. 1, and scheduled a referendum for the Nov. 3 election on taking away most of his duties and leaving him as primarily a tax collector.

But even if the voters say no to that City Charter amendment, the treasurer – since 2006, it has been Republican Michael E. White, who is running for re-election – will have a $55,000 salary for the next four years. This year, White is to be paid nearly $82,000.

The referendum and the election for city offices on the same day seem to be shaping up as a ballot on whom to blame for the city’s financial crisis, which produced numerous layoffs, the abolition of the Fire Department’s ambulance service and a 10 percent property tax increase. As a consequence of a special state law that let the city borrow nearly $5 million to pay off accumulated deficits, the budgets must be preapproved by the State Comptroller’s Office for the next nine years.

The only vote against the cut in pay and reduction in duties came from Alderwoman Anita Mullane, D-2nd Ward, who joined the Council in January.

White urged the amendment’s defeat at the polls. “I think it is absolutely not in the best interest of the voters of City of Lockport. Unfortunately the charter has already been violated,” White said, referring to the hiring of $95,000-a-year Finance Director Scott A. Schrader to take over many of the fiscal-reporting duties. “It takes away the checks and balances that have existed pretty much forever,” White said.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey, a Republican running for her first full term this fall, said, “This treasurer’s position is still an elected, independent position. We are not changing the most important aspect of this job.”

White contended that placing the fiscal-reporting function in the hands of a mayoral appointee “will make the waters so cloudy that we may not see transparency again for many years.”

In response, City Clerk Richelle J. Pasceri read aloud a 19-point statement prepared by Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth M. Genewick and Council President Joseph C. Kibler. It was a virtual indictment of White, quoting extensively from three state audit reports about his failure to perform the duties that the voters are now being asked to take away from him.

For 2013, the Council budgeted a small surplus that White told them the city had, when it actually was $1.15 million in the red. But the audits also showed that the Council overspent the 2013 budget by $1.26 million because it expected savings in health insurance and public safety overtime that never happened.

McCaffrey said that when she succeeded Tucker in February 2014, “I was immediately confronted by the Comptroller’s Office with serious concerns about the city’s financial status.” She said the city was required by the state government to take action.

“There has been a lot of pain to go around, but we could not sit idly by,” McCaffrey said, adding later, “Changes are required in our government to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

White, as he has repeatedly done, blamed former Mayor Michael W. Tucker and the Council for not filling long-term vacancies on the fiscal staff. White said, “This office has always taken responsibility and has done the best it can with the tools it was given.”

The Genewick-Kibler statement cited an email that McCaffrey sent to White June 30, 2014, suggesting that he hire temporary workers to help complete the 2013 financial statements. He submitted no staffing plan, and the 2013 books weren’t completed until December 2014, the statement said.

Several speakers said the current charter format has served the city well for 100 years. McCaffrey said, “If you read the reports, you could not say it served the city well.”

“It’s pretty obvious you’re not happy with the financial reporting that’s been done and you’re looking for someone to blame,” retired City Auditor Ruth E. Ohol commented.

Ohol said aldermen never responded to the 100-page reports she sent them monthly about the city’s fiscal condition or asked any questions about the city’s financial picture in Finance Committee meetings or during the workday.

“If you’re not getting the job done,” Ohol said, “you need to put in more time.”