Chris’s Corner: My Position on the City Budget

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By: Chris Voccio

Niagara Falls City Councilman

When Mayor Dyster presented his budget to the City Council on Friday, September 29, I was, before seeing the actual proposed budget, excited by his words.

He used phrases that get conservatives like me excited. He said his proposed budget “decreases the size of government”, “increases the efficiency of city government”, and said things like “consolidation of department staff”, “cutting taxes”, and “turning point in the city’s financial stability.” I really thought this would be the year we get our fiscal house in order.

Then the City Controller handed me the binder with the actual budget documents.

I immediately turned to the General Fund Summary and saw that spending would go up next year, from $91,425,986 to $91,481,244. I was deflated. I was later instructed that I should be looking at the Summary of Appropriations & Revenues page where I would see, after all the convoluted fund transfers (I’ve been speaking out against our confusing system of fund transfers since the beginning of my term), actual spending will be $94,706,102 compared to 2018’s $95,166,333. But that reduction is less than one-half of one percent of the city budget, meaning we’ll essentially be hold our spending flat to last year.

Perplexing to me was the proposal to cut property taxes. The mayor and others in city government have lamented that the city hasn’t raised taxes enough in the past, because of the inflows of casino revenue, suggesting our taxes are too low. I disagree with the premise that our taxes are too low, but now the mayor is proposing to cut taxes. All the while adding a garbage fee. I still don’t understand this.

As a libertarian-oriented guy, I will always prefer user fees over taxes, shifting the cost of a product or service to the actual user as opposed to blanketing the cost over every citizen. But considering our financial condition, and how the mayor has lamented how our taxes were not raised enough in the past, this proposed property tax decrease is, well, peculiar.

Yet another issue is the $12.3 million advance from Albany. At the time of the budget presentation we had nothing in writing from the state. Even now, with a letter from the state, there are still questions concerning the details of this advance.

On top of that, if this $12.3 million is an advance of casino dollars, then this money should fall in line with our recently passed casino spending policy, a measure passed unanimously by the Council earlier in the year. I stated then that I had issues with the policy, but I viewed it as better than not having a policy at all. Now that we have casino revenue coming to us, this mayor’s budget proposal should allocate these funds according to the policy. It does not.

But my real issue isn’t with the garbage fee. Nor is it with the $12.3 million advance from the state. Nor is it with the position changes between the Community Development and Code Enforcement departments. No, for me the issue is with expenses. While the proposed garbage fee is an understandable irritation, frustrated taxpayers should really be focused on the city’s spending habits.

The administration knew that we were facing a $13 million budget deficit when they crafted the budget proposal. The advance from Albany came at the very last minute. Surely there had to be plans, albeit drastic plans, to cut our spending. When the $12.3 million was announced, I know there must have been rejoicing. I would have understood if instead of cutting $13 million in expenses the administration chose to cut half that, or even a third of that. But there are no substantial cuts to city spending, and that’s why I view this budget proposal as unworkable.

Because of all of this, I will not be engaging in the process of amending this budget. It is too fundamentally flawed from the beginning. I’ve likened it to the expression rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic.

My fellow council members may choose to nitpick the budget, reducing some lines here, adding to some lines there. They may eliminate a position or two, perhaps add one or two. I’m not going to engage in that process, as the budget that was submitted to Council is simply unacceptable. Even if my colleagues reduce the budget by a few hundred thousand dollars, it still will have the city spending more than it should. Much more.

I’ll vote on any amendments my colleagues may choose to submit, but unless there are serious spending reductions I’ll be a no vote on this budget.

Chris Voccio is a Niagara Falls City Councilman and can be reached at ChrisVoccio@gmail.com.

 

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