The state audit released on Wednesday that found that the Niagara Falls Water Board and Water Authority had millions of dollars in excess funds sitting around as the city was looking for help to repair water lines on 72nd Street caught Council President Andrew Touma by complete surprise.
“I was shocked [by the findings],” said Touma Wednesday night. “We had been looking for them [Water Board] to help the city with half of the $1 million we needed to fix the pipes on 72nd Street and they said they didn’t have the money. We paid it all and now this. It caught me completely off guard.”
According to the audit released on Wednesday by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, the Water Board deposited more cash that needed in the Water Authority’s Debt Service fund and the account was flush with a $6.3 million surplus that could have been used for construction or to lower water rates. It was used for neither, and there are questions about whether the Water Board even knew it had the excess funds on hand.
The auditors found that $3.3 million was deposited into the fund when it was initially established in 2003 but it was not used to pay any debt service costs and remained in the account as of December. 31, 2015, adding that “water board officials were unsure why this extra deposit was made.”
The audit stated: “The fund’s cash balance was $6.3 million as of December 31, 2015. Since debt service costs are entirely funded by appropriations included in the water board’s annual budget, there is excess cash in this account. While we recognize this excess cash provides additional security for bondholders and allow for cash flow, the excess not needed for cash flow could be used” to fund capital projects or repairs or used to reduce the water and sewer rates charged to ratepayers.”
That’s exactly what Council President Touma wants to see going forward, a big reduction in water and sewer rates for the residents of Niagara Falls noting that perhaps even more shocking than the audit findings was the fact the Water Board has been talking in recent months about raising rates even though they had all this excess cash sitting around, although they are now reported to be claiming ignorance of the pot of gold in their accounts.
“We need to move to protect our taxpayers in the face of the shocking findings in the audit,” said Touma. “This needs to happen as soon as possible,” suggesting action should come before the ink dries on the stunning report from the state’s chief fiscal watchdog about the inefficient management of taxpayer funds at the two entities.