Mayor Vincenzo V. Anello spent most of the summer blaming the gaping budget deficit facing Niagara Falls on his predecessor.
The final spending plan put forth by former Mayor Irene Elia, Anello said over and over and over and over, amounted to fiscal gum and string camouflaged by billowing clouds of smoke and a funhouse's worth of mirrors. Ignoring his role as a member of the City Council that approved Elia's last budget, as well as the two before it, he used the stunningly generous, unquestioning forum afforded him by The Other Paper to decry Elia's reliance on one-time revenue sources -- such as the sales of the Wintergarden and Splash Park -- and exaggerated savings estimates to avoid making needed fundamental changes in the way the city does its business.
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Friday afternoon, Anello unveiled his first budget proposal. Naturally, the plan relies on one-time revenue sources and exaggerated savings estimates to avoid making needed fundamental changes in the way the city does its business.
The 398-page document is entitled simply "Mayor's Proposed 2005 Budget." They should have called it "Pay up, shut up and like it."
Say this much: Anello and City Administrator Dan Bristol -- who is slated to receive a 37 percent raise under the proposed budget -- did avoid placing the heaviest tax burden allowed by New York State on the shoulders of city property owners. But not by much.
Both residential and commercial property owners get smacked with tax increases of more than 6 percent, just short of the constitutional limit on taxation. Since Anello wants to increase spending by more than $2 million, the hike would have far exceeded that ceiling and gone well into double digits, except for maneuvers that smack of the same sort of creative accounting he's been complaining about.
The city took bids to demolish the ramp, but suddenly nixed the idea without explanation during the summer. Sale of the ramp, or another city-owned park, would seemingly require a bidding process and vehicle for public input, according to state and local law. Then again the Anello administration has shown in deals like the Hyde Park Golf Course Giveaway that laws governing the alienation of taxpayer-owned land apparently apply to someone else. Even if the scheme proves perfectly legal, selling an asset to balance the budget represents precisely the sort of number-shifting for which Anello blasts Elia at every opportunity.
By spinning the library off from the city, Anello said, Niagara Falls will save more than $1 million. Only a few problems here.
For one thing, it's not that simple. When library board members pushed to become independent from City Hall in 2001, the effort required a public referendum. Voters soundly defeated the proposal, which Elia vocally opposed.
Then there's the matter of who actually pays the library bill. Ultimately, the money comes from the city's taxpayers, whether the money is collected by the city or the school district.
And ultimately, even if such a transfer goes as smoothly and quickly as City Hall wants and needs it to, the shift does nothing to make things better come budget time next year.
If the library and asset sales don't go as planned, which is virtually guaranteed in these parts, the city is guaranteed a deficit of at least $2.75 million by this time next year.
But while Anello insists the city can only afford to pay for six months of one of the most vital services it provides to taxpayers, there's plenty of money left over for maintaining the Friends, Family and Flunkies Plan that governs City Hall hiring.
Which is interesting, considering he saw fit to create an entire risk management department in this year's budget. The proposed budget shifts the $46,332 risk manager position held by county Legislator Renae Kimble from human resources into its own department and slides part of Golf Course director Sam Granieri's job ($16,796 worth) into the budget of the risk management department under Golf/Safety Manager and adding the position.
Add in the jobs of "Principal Account Clerk" at $40,378 and "Risk manager/Safety officer" at $27,500, as well as administrative costs, and you 've got a $197,432 department -- $131,006 in salaries alone -- that the administration says can't save the city a dime.
Other cities have risk-management departments, or hire outside managers, to implement simple ideas like safety training, retraining injured workers for other duties and tracking down secondary claims made against other employers. Last year, the city's former health-insurance administrator, First Niagara, saved City Hall more than $500,000 through that last measure alone.
As a way of saying "thanks," Anello unceremoniously dumped First Niagara to hire an Albany company that charges more than $300,000 more annually for its services.
Besides the aforementioned patronage trough known as the risk management department, there's another $59,436 for grants writer Paul Colangelo, whom Anello conceded hasn't written a single grant in his weekly attempt at self-justification in TOP.
Then there's the $52,000 post of executive director of NFC Development, one of several unbudgeted jobs Anello doled out last winter, helping to create this year's massive deficit. There's also the $36,036 job labeled "Tourism/Special Events Coordinator," held by Tom Darro. With a $20,986 secretarial assistant also on duty, the tourism department kept the city remarkably free of "special events" in 2004, except for the disastrous annual Community Faire.
The biggest winner, though, is Bristol. In a city where most workers fantasize about even a 5-percent raise, Anello's budget proposes to raise the city administrator's salary from $57,278 to $78,884.
To be fair, Anello has added additional economic development duties to the job description during his first 10 months in office, but it's not as if those changes led to job, or salary, cuts elsewhere.
The mayor's beneficence concerning patronage also drives up pension and health insurance costs, two more factors that he claims the city can't do anything about.
Anello pointed to Elia's final budget and decried the gimmickry needed to avoid proposing a tax increase weeks before the 2004 election.
In the end, his first spending plan involves the same sort of trickery, and still increases the load on a shrinking, overburdened tax base.
Anello closed his introductory remarks on Friday by saying he looks forward to working with the members of City Council to finalize the budget.
Since he refused to tell members and other city officials what to expect in the budget proposal until it was unveiled, telling them they'd "find out Friday like everybody else," though, that vow of cooperation sounds like just one more empty promise.
By hinging the financial viability of Niagara Falls on one-time sales and "savings" that are far from guaranteed, Anello seems to be inviting the sort of fiscal crisis that will force the state to install a control board like Buffalo's.
Which might just be his ultimate goal.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Oct. 5 2004|