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City advisory board tells Niagara Falls to stop using casino money to balance budget

NIAGARA FALLS – The Niagara Falls Financial Advisory Panel met with the City Council for a second time on Monday to reiterate an urgent message, telling them to stop spending casino funds to balance the budget.

Advisory Panel Chairman Carmen Granto met with the Council in November, but said that if they don’t change their spendthrift ways, there will be no casino money for investment. Instead, it will all be committed to the general fund.

“What concerns us more than the dollar figures is that there seems to be a lack of urgency to address these issues,” said Granto. “The longer you wait, the fewer options you are going to have and there will be more severe consequences.”

He urged the Council to consider renegotiating health care with unions and having the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office take over 911 services

“You have to do what is best for the city,” he said.

Advisory Board Member Frank Soda said that, in the past eight years, expenditures in the general fund have gone up $10 million, but the tax levy has gone up barely $1.4 million. He said the use of casino money has risen from $4.3 million in 2009 to $13 million in the 2016 budget.

“If it costs $10 million more to run the city than it did 10 years ago, I live here, charge me, but don’t pretend with your conservative budget you are practicing some kind of conservative budget philosophy by simply sticking the needle in your arm with casino money and making yourself junkies every time you have a budget to deal with.”

Soda, a former City Council member before the days of casino money, said that, in his day, the Council spent what they brought in or borrowed. He said the current Council must discuss delivery of services and realistic costs. He said they have to look at raising the tax levy for homeowners and businesses.

Advisory Panel Member Russell Petrozzi said the casino money has been a crutch for the city.

Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti said that the last time a reassessment was done, it was done poorly and incompletely. She suggested the city do a new one.

City Controller Maria Brown said that as more money was coming in, it was being spent – something she objected to. She said she has also looked at options for reinvestment.

Granto said the Council should meet regularly to look at cost-cutting measures and ways to gradually increase taxes before a final budget is in place – and it is too late.

One thing the Council was unable to cut Monday was future health care benefits for City Council members.

Last month, in a 3 to 2 vote, the Council ended health care for future Council members, but on Feb. 3, Mayor Paul Dyster vetoed their action, meaning the board needed a supermajority of four votes to override the veto. In another 3 to 2 vote, the proposal to end health care for Council members failed.

Dyster did not discuss his veto, but in a statement said he felt that having a benefits package that was fair and reasonable is an important factor in attracting candidates. He wrote that the elimination of the health care benefit would significantly narrow the pool of interested and qualified candidates for future office.

Councilmen Ezra Scott Jr. and Charles Walker voted in favor of the veto and continuing health insurance for members. Scott said he’d like insurance to continue for those who need it, but would like to end the option of a $10,000 buyout for those who already have insurance.