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DEC 23, 2014 - JAN 07, 2015

2015 Budget Wrap-Up

By Glenn Choolokian
Niagara Falls Councilman

December 23, 2014

Glenn Choolokian
Niagara Falls Councilman

Now that the 2015 city budget process is behind us, there's one thing that we – residents, media, elected officials – can agree on: the process was a glaring example of bad government and poor communication.

Non-transparency, shifting financial information and a working document that the mayor withheld from the council for 37 days guaranteed that the end product would be costly to the residents through increased taxes and mismanaged taxpayer dollars.

While the confusion over the budget was constant throughout its preparation, I want to note that steps were taken to limit that confusion and improve the budget as received by the council from Mayor Paul Dyster.

After receiving the mayor's budget I contacted my council colleagues and requested that we discuss ways to improve the mayor's document. For days I emailed and spoke to my fellow council members regarding the need for us to act quickly in light of the 37-day delay.

After we got together I presented more than 80 budget resolutions. The only way a proposed mayoral budget can be changed is through such resolutions. I was sincerely trying to improve the budget that the mayor handed us: a budget with job cuts, services threatened, and big tax increases.

At the end of this difficult budget process the council adopted many of my resolutions. Many of those resolutions involved the use of casino funds to address problem areas.

I won't use this column to debate the mayor's use of casino cash except to say that until the mayor and council work together to write a casino cash spending plan, the confusion over what is and isn't acceptable as a casino cash expense will only increase.

Having said that I believe the mayor has no intention of writing a casino-spending plan because he seems to enjoy the confusion regarding these funds. That confusion gives him cover as he disburses the cash.

The Dyster administration is suffering not only from a serious fiscal deficit but also from an unacceptable transparency deficit.

How can the council improve the budget, and how can the residents understand the city finances when the deficit and budget numbers are a moving target that begin their confusing movement in August before coming to rest as the budget is approved in December?

Monday morning budget quarterbacks like to say "The budget figures are available to the council any time they want them and they have no excuse for being confused!"

Recent city budget history has shown that the city deficit, city revenue, and the delivery of the working budget by the mayor has been an exercise in non-transparency and administrative irregularities. At the end of the day I believe this non-transparency is practiced to frustrate the good intentions of the council and the interests of concerned residents.

Which brings me to the 2013 audit of city finances by the New York State Comptroller. That audit was the result of hundreds of hours of work performed by the Comptroller's staff out of Buffalo.

Chief among the audit recommendations was that the city should stop using "one-shot" gimmicks to close operating deficits. The audit reported that the city was paying out more money than it was taking in and had created a recurring structural deficit.

After the audit was delivered the Dyster administration refused to fix the problem and to this day is still using one-shot gimmicks to close the repeating deficit. If that weren't bad enough the mayor keeps handing out overtime, raises and stipends as if it was Christmas. And on top of this he's built more parks, created more over-head, and still has not addressed how he will fund the operation of his train station.

In the meantime the mayor continues to hire consultants while contracting out increasing amounts of law and engineer work. Incredibly, he now wants to open his own animal shelter!

Transparency, communication, a casino cash-spending plan and the good advice of the NYS Comptroller are all we need to improve our finances.

This city is failing and it's failing in the face of a casino cash windfall.

It looks like Mayor Dyster didn't get the memo.

The evolution of the Niagara Falls taxpayer....






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