By Councilman Kenny Tompkins
As I continue to review the 2018 Niagara Falls city budget, one word runs through my mind: Disappointed. I am disappointed in what I see. There are no tough decisions being made with regard to department and personnel expenses. There was no mention of new revenue ideas, even though I know that other councilmembers and myself have made recommendations. The only source of revenue accounted for in this budget was taxes.
This administration’s answer to everything is taxes. Let’s continue to bleed the city dry, rather than focus on better fiscal responsibility. They are asking us to go over the tax cap. They want a staggering 14% increase on commercial properties. In fact, the mayor has even justified it, claiming since our property values are so low, it’s still a deal to open a business here.
It’s comments like that which indicate this administration is really out of touch with what our city needs to grow our economic and population base. A 14% tax hike certainly won’t attract new businesses to open in Niagara Falls. It will likely shutter doors of existing businesses. Consider a small shop now paying $7000 a year in taxes would see an increase of nearly $1000. If they are already struggling in our current market, this could be what causes them to hang the closed sign for good. Take a look around Main Street and Pine Avenue. More abandoned buildings. Even 3rd Street, which has received considerable attention in the last few years, has recently had businesses close.
Does the mayor really think it’s still a deal to come here?
Certainly we have a huge gap in our budget that stems from the stalemate between the State and the Seneca over the casino payments. However, we can’t expect businesses to shoulder the burden because this administration failed to heed warnings and advice on how to invest these funds when we had them.
We simply cannot expect the small business owners in our city to face such a steep increase while the administration does little to reduce costs.
The cold hard reality is we need to look for opportunities THIS YEAR to start making cuts. We need to find $12 million to save in that budget or next year will be even worse. Consider that 80% of our budget is personnel costs. Next year, without significant attempts to save, we could face massive layoffs and disruption of essential services.
There are plenty of opportunities still within this budget to change how we spend and prioritize. However, we must be smart in the endeavor. The consolidations and cuts that we make must make sense. The proposed merger of code enforcement with Community Development is FAR from a prudent move for many reasons.
For any change, any merger to be effective, we absolutely must have stakeholder input. There were no discussions whatsoever with the code enforcement department prior to this proposed budget item. Despite some attempts to justify this consolidation by suggesting mutual relationships with HUD and zombie properties, code enforcement is entirely different from Community Development.
The primary function of the code enforcement department is public safety. It’s a specialized field, one that requires certifications and knowledge. Much of this institutional knowledge is leaving when the Acting Director retires, the third member of that department to retire without a replacement. We cannot simply expect the Director of Community Development suddenly have all of this knowledge needed to lead this team effectively. We need experience, now more than ever given the decrepit condition of buildings in this city.
In addition, because of Community Development involvement with programs for in rem and auction properties, we need that level of checks and balances that comes from having separate departments and reports. The people who are tasked with ensuring these properties are safe for habitat should not be reporting to the same leader who is tasked with their sale.
This consolidation is not only a bad idea, it’s a dangerous one as well. If, as Mr. Piccirillo suggests, he has time as Director of Community Development to manage such a critical department as code enforcement, then perhaps we need to examine whether restructuring is needed in Community Development overall. No matter what, we need to keep these two departments separate.
Speaking of consolidations and Community Development, one area that IS ripe for cut is the use of the Carnegie Building. There is no reason why we can’t bring this department back to city hall. This move alone could save us significantly as a cost center. We could then lease it or even use some grants from the Carnegie Foundation to upgrade the facility and possibly turn it into a museum featuring our city’s history, which could also generate revenue.
Bottom-line, this is NOT the time for:
• Superficial cuts to the budget that have no real impact
• Uninformed consolidations that could prove most costly in the end
• An attempt to right a fiscal wrong by burdening our few remaining businesses and tax paying residents
Now is the time for:
• Innovative thinking to find new sources for revenue
• Informed decisions on cuts and consolidations; we have to think SMART
• Prioritized needs vs. nice-to-haves—in other words, hard decisions
• Engagement of all city workers at every level to find ways to save; the rank and file are the experts in these jobs and they know how to improve processes or what’s necessary.
• Good government that looks beyond election year theatrics and into our true responsibility to our constituents
I will continue to fight for what we need to keep this city away from the fiscal cliff upon which we are teetering, without burdening our taxpayers, especially our businesses.