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Lockport Council to scrap plans to share assessor with Niagara Falls

LOCKPORT – Democrats on the Lockport Common Council flexed their muscles Wednesday, making plans to bring back a full-time city assessor position and to scrap a contract with Niagara Falls to share the latter city’s assessor.

Although the Council has three Republicans and three Democrats, the discussion made it clear that Republican Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey has only one ally, Council President David R. Wohleben, R-4th Ward. They were the only voices in favor of keeping the Falls contract, which that City Council has yet to vote on.

The other two Republicans, Joseph P. Oates of the 1st Ward and Mark S. Devine of the 3rd Ward, agreed with the Democrats that Lena D. Villella, the city’s longtime real property appraiser and sister of Democratic Alderwoman Anita Mullane, should be the assessor.

At Wednesday’s work session, the Council placed the shelving of the shared services agreement with Niagara Falls and a budget amendment to pay for a full-time assessor on next week’s agenda.

“I think Lena should be hired,” Devine said. “I think she’s the most qualified person in Niagara County.”

“Why wouldn’t we hire her?” Oates asked.

“We’re for shared services. We just want to be on the other end,” said Alderman Richard E. Abbott, D-5th Ward. He said Lockport should offer its assessor’s time to small towns in hopes of making money, although he admitted that no one has asked any towns if they are interested.

McCaffrey said, “I’d be concerned, giving up a real shared services agreement for a hypothetical one.”

The lame-duck 2015 Council passed the Niagara Falls agreement at its last meeting in December, but voters cleaned house in November, and Mullane is the only survivor of last year’s Council. Mullane said she will abstain on next week’s vote.

McCaffrey said she will consider vetoing the repeal of the Falls contract and the budget amendment to fund a full-time assessor. However, unless she can convince one of the four pro-Villella voters to change his mind, the veto will be overridden. That’s because with a six-member Council, the simple majority needed to pass something and the two-thirds needed to override a veto are the same number: four.

McCaffrey doesn’t have to appoint Villella as assessor. She could choose someone else, but any appointee, including Villella, would be provisional and would have to finish in the top three on a civil service examination to keep the job.

The exact amount of the budget transfer is to be determined by Director of Finance Scott A. Schrader. It might be about $65,000, including benefits. The Democrats at first envisioned a $15,000 addition to Villella’s current salary allocation, but Schrader said a full salary and benefits allocation is needed.

The source of the money is to be the city’s legal outside counsel budget, which is $150,000.

That’s the same source the Council intends to tap to pay for a new clerk in the city Treasurer’s Office, which the Council approved last week. The transfers would put a crimp in the city’s ability to pay the Albany law firm of Goldberger & Kremer, which charges $225 an hour to work on the city’s labor issues. Last year, the city spent $157,000 on outside counsel.

McCaffrey said many of the labor lawsuits were settled last year, but contract arbitration with the firefighters’ union is still expected this spring. “We will still have costs,” the mayor said.

The 2016 budget includes two jobs in the assessor’s office, including about $49,000 for Villella’s appraiser salary, and $25,000 for a shared assessor. The contract with the Falls calls for a $30,000 payment to the Falls for the use of its assessor, James R. Bird, who was to work in Lockport eight hours a week.

Oates said, “We’re better off having our own full-time person. It’ll save money in the long run.”