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Falls to seek advice from state board as it faces financial difficulties

NIAGARA FALLS – City lawmakers on Monday agreed to participate in a state program aimed at helping municipalities facing financial stress.

As the city battles the pressures of significant and ongoing financial difficulties – including a $7.6 million deficit last year – Niagara Falls has joined the ranks of cities like Rochester, Albany and Jamestown in seeking advice from the state’s Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments.

Having rejected joining the program twice in the past 20 months, the City Council voted, 4-1, to seek the panel’s recommendations during Monday’s meeting in City Hall.

This time, the request to join the program made by Mayor Paul A. Dyster’s administration was buoyed by a recommendation from the city’s Financial Advisory Panel, a volunteer panel of citizens established by the Council earlier this year.

Along with the state panel’s advice, the city may also be able to tap into up to $5 million in state funding to implement suggestions made by the restructuring board.

Resistance to joining the program in the past, echoed again Monday night, included the wish of some lawmakers that the city do what it can first before bringing in outside help.

Councilman Charles A. Walker, who twice in the past voted against entering the program, said he still has concerns about bringing the state panel in. And while he acknowledged the financial difficulties the city faces are serious, he said he still thinks there are things the Falls can do on its own.

“Unfortunately, that’s not happening,” Walker said, “and obviously, the way it seems, it’s probably not going to happen.”

Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian, the lone lawmaker to vote against joining the state program this time, said he continues to believe that the city is not distressed, but is instead “mismanaged.”

Supporters said the state panel’s recommendations are not binding, though there would be strings attached if the city accepts any state funding through the program.

Carmen A. Granto, the former Falls schools superintendent who chairs the local financial advisory committee, told lawmakers he believes participation will help the city view more data that illuminate the difficulties it faces.

While Granto avoided uttering the words “control board,” he said joining the program is not the first step towards “something else.”

The state program was created in 2013.

The Council voted 4-0 against joining the state program in November 2013. It also rejected entering the program with a 3-2 vote last December. A third time – in May of last year – Dyster withdrew a proposal to enter the program before a vote of the Council took place.

City lawmakers faced a difficult time in developing this year’s city budget last fall. In the end, they approved a spending plan that brought with it a property tax increase and a 6.5 increase in overall spending, while at the same time threatening layoffs to city employees.

Falls officials have used some of the city’s savings to plug budget holes the last two years, including $4.9 million in this year’s budget. Heading into the next fiscal year, the city only has about $3.9 million in reserves that is not already restricted in some way.