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Depew residents deliver resounding 'no' to dissolving village

The village of Depew is here to stay.

Depew residents voted 3,006 to 1,165 on Tuesday to keep their 124-year-old village government intact, rejecting a proposal to merge the village with the towns of Cheektowaga and Lancaster.

After months of haggling over Depew’s future, weighing potential tax savings against the prospect of 170 village workers losing their jobs and how government services would be impacted, voters decided they wanted Erie County’s second-largest village to live on.

Had the vote gone the other way, Depew, with 15,146 residents, would have been the largest village in New York state to dissolve in decades and the first village in Erie County to dissolve since at least 1900.

Chairman election inspector Sharon Nusall reads the tally that the proposition went down at Depew Village Hall in Depew on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A crowd of more than 100 erupted in loud cheers at the Village Hall after the results were announced at about 9:45 p.m., with some residents hugging, crying and hollaring so loud that an election inspector announcing the result could barely be heard.

About 41 percent of the village’s 10,044 eligible voters participated in the referendum.

[See a gallery of photos from Depew's vote]

"A lot of people in Depew are going to get a good night's sleep," said Mayor Jesse Nikonowicz. "We needed to win big so we don't have to deal with this in four years. That was critical. I am thrilled to death."

Depew Village employee Shelley Matthews, right, and Judy Guarino, a 30 year resident, celebrate the news that dissolution was overwhelmingly defeated. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Under state law, advocates have to wait four years to petition for another referendum to dissolve the village, according to Depew Village Attorney Kathleen McDonald.

"Will it happen again? I don't believe so," said Dan Beutler, who wanted the village government to be terminated.

The vote result was not surprising. For months, the anti-dissolution groups went door-to-door telling residents that their police, fire and highway services would not be as good if they were provided by the towns of Cheektowaga and Lancaster, and that village workers would lose their jobs. Dissolution opponents suggested the tax savings projected by a grassroots group supporting dissolution were not guaranteed.

[Lessons for Depew from two villages that approved dissolution]

Advocates pushing to eliminate the village said residents could save $408 to $1,050 a year and said the village’s $8.2 million in debts and spiraling spending were proof that the village government was not cost effective.

Depew residents came out in big numbers Tuesday to decide the village's fate. At times during the day, hundreds of village residents stood in line and waited up to 40 minutes to vote.

"I am surprised it was as high as it was," Democratic Elections Commissioner Leonard Lenihan said of the turnout. "But it's a good solid statement that the voters care about their village. They'll definitely hit the 40 percent mark. That's definitely a high turnout for a standalone special election being held in the middle of the winter."

He said about 4,150 voters cast a ballot, including 89 who voted by absentee ballot.

Outside Village Hall, those fighting dissolution hold signs and thank voters for coming out. (Karen Robinson/Buffalo News)

The first voters began arriving at 10:50 a.m., more than an hour before polls opened. With high temperatures nearing 45 degrees through the afternoon, voters who walked to the village hall on Manitou Street faced a steady drizzle. The biggest surge came about 4:30 p.m., when 400 voters stood in line. As night fell, residents stood outside in the parking lot holding umbrellas while others searched for an open parking spot, circling several times. Voters were forced to park on nearby streets. For much of the dinner hour, the wait was about 35 to 40 minutes long.

"This reminds me of Disney," said one voter. "This line does not end."

Hillview Restaurant server Tonza Hobba went back to vote mid-afternoon before her work shift started because the line was so long at lunch time. "I voted to save my village. I like the services. The taxes are the taxes."

But after 7 p.m., the lines thinned a bit and no one was standing in line outside the Village Hall. Inside, the voting line snaked like an intricate maze, with voters following a twisting path that took them into the Council Chambers and through the corridors to the rear of the building to the Senior Center, where a large room contained four voting machines and residents were split up alphabetically to sign in and cast their paper ballots.

It's no secret how Barbara Struebel voted: "Save our services," she said.
(Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich/Buffalo News)

Resident Don Massara, who walked with two canes, said after voting that he hoped the village remained intact. "Leave it as it is. I've been here 46 years. It's a good village and they run a good show," said Massara, who ran for Village Board twice.

From families with young children, still sporting their school backpacks, to elderly residents in wheelchairs and others using canes, every age came out to weigh in on the village's future.

The wait to vote was down to about 30 minutes as of 8 p.m.

"What are we giving away?" said Mayor Nikonowicz, as he watched the parade of residents pass by his office earlier in the day.

Three hours after voting, Nikonowicz admitted he might get nervous after the polling site closed and the votes were counted, including about 89 absentee ballots.

"I certainly want to be positive, but I don't want to jinx anything," said the mayor, who opposed dissolving the village.

Depew native Fred Wilkosz, 89, who used to run a tavern on Penora, "snuck" in the back door of Village Hall to vote as he walked slowly with his cane. "I love the services. This village has been my life here," he said.

An acquaintance, Sigmund "Ziggy" Kucewicz, 85, whose son is a village trustee, was adamant the village should stay. "The police department and fire department are exceptional. If it snows, the highway department does all the streets, not just the main roads. It's like a family affair," he said.

“We are self-sufficient,” said Scott Wegst, 34, a volunteer firefighter for one of Depew’s six companies, Central Hose. “I believe we should be separated from the towns. Right now we pay $3.6 million to the Town of Cheektowaga for dog control and the assessor’s office and we get nothing. Down with the towns!”

After the vote, Police Chief Stan Carwile said, "The residents of Depew spoke and told us what they wanted. They liked the way we provide services to them."


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