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Mayor returns to garbage fee as means to close Niagara Falls budget gap

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said Thursday he still thinks the city should have a user fee for garbage and recycling service.

He's proposing one that would be even larger than the fee the Council rejected last year, as a means of filling a $5.5 million budget gap for 2020.

City Controller Daniel R. Morello said that the figures are still subject to change, but his current estimate is a fee of $234.75 a year for every garbage customer who has one garbage tote and one recycling tote. Those with more totes would pay more.

The fee would bring in about $4 million, and Dyster said he intends to ask the Council to abolish currently vacant positions to save most of the other $1.5 million.

The alternative, he said, is a big tax increase, numerous layoffs, or both.

"We're proposing this specifically because we are trying to close a gap," Dyster said. "The choice basically comes down to, do you want to continue with free garbage service at the cost of significant cuts in other services, including public safety? We don't think that's what the public wants, and that's why we're making the proposal that we're making for Council's consideration."

Last year, Dyster proposed a fee of $168 a year on all garbage customers. It would have brought in about $3.1 million, but Dyster attempted to sweeten the deal with a 13% property tax cut to compensate for the new fee.

But residents howled about the fee and the Council voted it down 4-1. The city raised taxes 1.7% instead.

The Council is being asked to vote Wednesday to schedule a public hearing on a local law allowing the fee to be imposed.

Council Chairman Andrew P. Touma said he thinks he can round up enough votes to hold the hearing. As for actually imposing the fee, that's a different matter.

"The user fee is a possibility, but it takes the Council working together with the mayor to get that done. I'm not sure that's going to occur," Touma said.

Last year, the user fee was announced with the proposed budget. This year, Dyster said he hopes to have the fee question settled before he hands in the budget.

"I don't understand how we can do anything without seeing the budget," Councilman Kenneth M. Tompkins said. "Did he go through and cut everything he could possibly cut?"

Dyster said the budget gap has nothing to do with the Seneca Nation of Indians refusing to pay its share of casino profits despite losing an arbitration case. Dyster said his budget will assume the state will fill that gap.

The problem, he said, is primarily caused by rising health insurance costs, despite union concessions in that area.

"We have held taxes down here, at or below the rate of inflation, for the long haul," Dyster said. "Our costs, especially personnel costs, which are 80% of our budget, have gone up."

Touma also noted that the calendar hurts the city, because 2020 will have 27 pay periods for city workers instead of the normal 26. That's a $1.5 million difference in expenses.

Dyster said customers are getting more for their money under the city's new contract with Modern Disposal: two bulky items per week, year-round, instead of just in the spring and fall; collection of bagged yard waste year-round; and collection of downtown trash by Modern instead of the city.

Morello said the city would bill the fee in semiannual installments, separate from tax bills.

Dyster noted that a user fee must also be paid by tax-exempt properties.

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