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Cheektowaga supervisor to pass the gavel to another woman

One has had a key to Cheektowaga Town Hall for 45 years, and the other has held a Town Board seat for just two years.

But when Mary F. Holtz steps down as supervisor and Diane M. Benczkowski takes over Friday, history will be made as the first female supervisor hands over the gavel to another woman.

Benczkowski was a part-time realtor so she could stay home with her young children when other parents suggested she run for the Depew School Board.

“That was a good way to start advocating for the kids,” she said.

When she was serving on the School Board for 12 years, she became interested in town politics.

“I started to see some things taking place in town I wanted to take part in,” said Benczkowski, 57, who had unsuccessful runs for Town Board and town clerk during that time.

Then she changed her affiliation to Democrat, and although she did not have the party endorsement, she was the top vote-getter in the primary when she ran for Town Board in 2013.

Holtz took another path.

She came of age when career options for women often came down to nurse, teacher or secretary. Her first job for the town was when she was a teenager, making the identification cards that were issued to residents using town pools.

Holtz was the only one of her siblings interested in government, and she followed her father, Benedict T., to Town Hall, where he was town supervisor and then town clerk. She started in the clerk’s office as an unpaid intern, then moved to part time and then full time. She eventually was named deputy town clerk, and after 32 years in the clerk’s office, she won election as town clerk in 2003.

She was elected supervisor in 2007 and re-elected four years later. And now, at 66, she’s ready to leave town government. The decision not to seek re-election was difficult, but she’s glad she made it. She started thinking about it about a year ago.

“One day I was going to retire, and the next day I wasn’t,” she said. “When I finally did make the decision, I knew it was the right decision.”

It feels wonderful, she said, going through the lasts: budget, Town Board meeting, department head meeting.

“I spent my entire life there literally,” Holtz said.

While her father introduced her to politics, Julia Reinstein got her hooked on history. Holtz also was town historian for 20 years.

Among her accomplishments in town government, she cites employee contributions to health care and the elimination of lifetime health insurance for new town employees, the successful merging of the tax receiver and clerk’s office, establishment of the archives building in the former Maryvale Library, growth in the town, including hotels along Genesee Street and the Cabela’s store, full value assessments and designating the head of technology as a department head.

Still, problems remain, including negotiation of contracts with the town’s five unions as well as monitoring work on sewers under a state consent order to reduce and eliminate sewage discharge into area creeks.

Benczkowski said she’s ready for the challenges.

She will draw on her real estate background in addressing the problem of neglected so-called “zombie” homes, and said her School Board experience will help in negotiating union contracts and preparing the budget. She plans to keep her realtor’s license, but does not plan to actively sell real estate.

She wants the Town Board to go green at board meetings with iPads or computers to cut down on the use of paper. She also wants to save money through central purchasing, and make sure the town is getting the supplies it is paying for.

“There were a couple incidents where we paid a bill we never received a service for,” Benczkowski said, adding the town may have to hire a claims accountant.

“We need to get our spending in line in order for us to keep taxes at bay and not increase them,” Benczkowski said. “It’s hard, very hard to do that.”

She said she wants the town to share more services, and points to the town and school district having one attorney to fight assessment challenges, and the assessor, who is shared with Evans.

“I have to get in there and get my feet wet and figure out a plan,” she said, adding that Councilman Timothy J. Meyers will be her deputy supervisor.

Life in always-political Cheektowaga can be trying, but Benczkowski said things started falling into place after the primary, which she won, and after the general election all the town’s officials agreed they will work together. She said they may not always agree but everyone’s opinion should be respected.

“Being a mom of three daughters has definitely prepared me to have a thick skin and be compassionate,” she said.

While Cheektowaga is considered a middle-class town of 88,000, it struggles with some poverty issues, and town government faces challenges in retaining the quality of life in the town. One-quarter of the residents are over 62.

“It’s very difficult in this town to raise taxes,” Holtz said. “I wish them well. I understand the problems they’ll have.”