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Tale of two Tonawandas is told in town supervisor race

The race for Town of Tonawanda supervisor is a tale of two Tonawandas.

Joseph H. Emminger believes that the town is ripe with economic redevelopment and is fiscally responsible, and offers services second to none.

Damon D. Piatek sees empty storefronts, a dwindling tax base and a gradual eroding of those services that made the town the envy of others.

Both men are vying in Tuesday’s election to succeed Anthony F. Caruana, who announced in April that he would not seek a third term.

The race has been focused mostly on the issues, although in the week before the general election, the candidates have been sparring over government transparency and a pair of controversial campaign contributions.

Emminger, 56, is a three-term councilman and president of a real estate appraisal company who tells voters, as he did when seeking re-election to the Town Board in 2013, “I am running on my record.”

That record, according to Emminger, includes adoption of the town’s first four-year budget outlook, management of major water and sewer infrastructure improvements mandated by the state and a strong record on public safety.

“The town is a $100 million corporation,” the Democratic candidate said at a recent “Meet the Candidates” night. “That’s our budget. So what makes me the most qualified candidate for the job of town supervisor? Job performance. I’ve taken extraordinary measures over the past eight years to ensure financial stability for our town.”

Emminger said he has challenged department heads to “think outside the box” by merging town departments and entering shared service agreements with other municipalities to cut costs, such as the recent deal to share an assessor among the town, the City of Tonawanda and Grand Island.

“That’s how you lead,” he said. “That’s why we’re able to maintain our excellent services, and that’s how you maintain the town’s strong financial position.”

Piatek, 39, a lifelong town resident, a political newcomer and the owner of an international trade business based in the City of Tonawanda, sees things differently. He says “quality of life” has suffered in the town, noting recent cutbacks at the Aquatic & Fitness Center and Senior Center.

“This is not the town I remember,” the Republican said at the same candidates forum. “I remember playgrounds, playground attendants. I remember mobile playgrounds. I remember a lot of different services we used to have in the town when I grew up here.”

The town is missing out on projects from the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and is at a disadvantage without its own industrial development agency, he said.

One of Piatek’s proposals to jump-start economic development is to sell the police station’s land on busy Sheridan Drive to a developer for high-end retail and build a new state-of-the-art public safety campus elsewhere, possibly at one of the three Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District buildings scheduled to close next year. “It’s very doable,” he said. “We can take land that’s not on the tax roll and put it on the tax roll and get more revenue for the town. That’s how we think outside the box.”

Both candidates addressed the announced closure early next year of the Huntley Station power plant, which would result in a $2 million hit to the town budget.

Emminger said town officials have been “proactive” about the long-feared closure and in constant communication with other levels of government.

“We’re all working to ensure that the state aid that we need is going to be coming if that day comes when Huntley closes so we can provide services that our residents have come to expect without raising taxes,” he said.

But Piatek warned that any state aid will only be a temporary stopgap and has proposed that the town call on the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to form a special task force to find a solution for the revenue loss.

“We have a very short amount of time to make up all that tax revenue,” he said.

The supervisor post pays $63,775 annually, with an additional $13,277 for budget officer duties.

Both candidates have been busy meeting with civic groups and knocking on doors in the final weeks of the campaign.

“It’s a shoe-leather, wearing-out-your-sneakers kind of race,” said Sean P. O’Neil, the town Republican chairman.

The ballot also includes a single council seat with, incumbent Democrat Daniel J. Crangle facing a challenge from Republican William R. Naab.

Emminger and Crangle also have the Conservative and Working Families lines, while Piatek and Naab hold the Independence and Reform party lines.

Marguerite Greco is unopposed for a second term as town clerk, and incumbent J. Mark Gruber is the cross-endorsed nominee for town justice.

Republicans had run the town for many decades, but in about the last decade since Emminger, Caruana and others came to power, Democrats have had a lock on governing the town of about 73,000 residents.

Like recent Republican candidates, Piatek and Naab are critical of the town’s one-party rule and say it has come at a cost of openness and transparency. Piatek has promised, if elected, greater accessibility to town government.

Piatek cited a recent Town Board meeting, which he said lacked decorum and proper procedure. Emminger, as deputy supervisor, ran the meeting in Caruana’s absence. “I was almost embarrassed to see what happened,” Piatek said. “There was a woman who asked questions. The town attorney was out of order. Nobody took control of that meeting.”

Emminger scoffed at the criticism, noting that all board meetings are recorded on audio and the minutes published on the town website. “We’re more transparent now than at any time in the history of the Town of Tonawanda,” he said.

Meanwhile, Emminger has faulted Piatek for accepting donations from Tonawanda Coke, which a federal jury in March 2013 found guilty of polluting the air and ground at its Town of Tonawanda plant.

“It’s a slap in the face to the residents of this town for him to take that money,” Emminger said.

Piatek has raised $14,167 for his campaign, according to the state Board of Elections, with nearly half of that sum coming from just two donations. In late August, he accepted $3,000 donations from Tonawanda Coke and Vanocur Refractories, which is described on its website as a technology transfer company of Tonawanda Coke Corp. “There’s new management over there,” Piatek said. “The people who were involved in the issue before are no longer there. They’re paying their fine, they’re working through their situation.”

Emminger has raised $18,074, with many donations coming from town employees and fellow town Democrats.