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Full-time assessor position is approved in City of Lockport

LOCKPORT – The Common Council voted, 4-1, Wednesday to create the full-time position of assessor and scrubbed an agreement with Niagara Falls to share that city’s assessor.

The aldermen who voted in favor of the new job want Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey to appoint Lena D. Villella, the city’s longtime real property appraiser and sister of Alderwoman Anita Mullane, D-2nd Ward, who abstained from the vote.

However, McCaffrey doesn’t have to. The mayor, who hinted at a veto of the moves last week, said she would be making an announcement Thursday.

Finance Director Scott A. Schrader set up a $61,048 budget transfer to pay for the post, including a salary of $55,000 a year plus benefits, on the grounds that the same salary is paid to the city clerk, treasurer, community development director and civil service secretary.

However, Alderman Richard E. Abbott, D-5th Ward, said he thinks the assessor’s job should pay $68,000 a year, and that’s what the Council approved, increasing the budget transfer to $77,058. The money was allocated from the city’s budget for outside legal services.

Villella said she wants the assessor’s job, as she has for many years. “I don’t have a salary demand,” she said. Her current salary is about $49,000 a year.

The deal with the Falls was to cost $25,000 for the Falls’ assessor to work one day a week in Lockport: four hours in the office and four hours in the field.

Villella, who has been acting assessor twice, in 2004 and 2014, told the aldermen that a full-time assessor is needed. “The stopgap measures have been nothing more than Band-Aids,” she said. “There’s no way he can do that job in four hours.”

Alderman Joseph P. Oates, R-1st Ward, said he envisions Villella handling her current duties, as well as being assessor. “It would be a dual position that in the long run would save money,” Oates said. “And we’d have somebody here full time.”

Abbott said that “it would open us up to shared-service arrangements with other communities” but that Lockport would be the seller, not the buyer.

Council President David R. Wohleben, R-4th Ward, said the State Comptroller’s Office recommends shared services in the assessment field. He called the $68,000 salary “ridiculous” and far above that for cities of similar size. McCaffrey said sticking with the Falls deal would have been more fiscally responsible.

In other business, the Council scheduled a Feb. 3 public hearing on increasing the income limit for the 50 percent senior citizen tax exemption. The break is currently available to anyone 65 or older who earns less than $25,420 a year. Abbott said he wants to increase that to the state maximum of $29,000.

There were 143 recipients of the exemption in 2015, with an exempted valuation of $4.3 million, Abbott said. Both figures have been steadily decreasing, he said. There were 164 participants last year.

Abbott said the impact on other taxpayers would be a property tax rate increase of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The Council also scheduled a Feb. 3 hearing on the environmental-impact statement for the Lockport Cave’s proposal to operate a zip-line ride over the Erie Canal.

The state Canal Corp. has asked for some changes in the plan, moving the three platforms slightly and raising the cables by 2 feet, said Thomas P. Callahan, co-owner of Hydraulic Race Co., which owns and operates the cave’s underground boat ride.

“They want more distance between the feet of the rider and the water,” Callahan said.