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DEC 09 - DEC 17, 2014

Is a Town Tax Inevitable in Lewiston?

By Anna M. Howard

December 09, 2014

Dennis Brochey has his work cut out for him.

Shortly after he assumed office in January, 2014, Lewiston Town Supervisor Dennis Brochey discovered that the town was facing a $500,000 shortfall for 2014.

When the town's independent municipal auditor, Pat Brown gave his year-end review, he said that, like most municipalities, the town was suffering financial stress, that overall Lewiston was in decent financial health, with reserves to cover deficit spending for a few years but obviously something had to change sooner or later.

As the 2105 budget time approached, Brochey said that the financial future was grim - since the town continues to spend far more than it takes in and that Lewiston now has to look at all ways to save money.

One resident, Ronald Craft had an idea and he started a petition to replace the local police department with the Niagara County Sherriff's Department. Craft got over 500 people to sign his petition but it was later "discovered" there was no basis in law to give the people such a voice in their own governance.

Before the proposed police consolidation referendum died, police supporters said there would be little savings had by disbanding the Lewiston Police Department, not to mention that the town would suffer from a lack of protection, and have far less of the homespun local policing townspeople were use to, if they traded their town police for impersonal county sheriff's deputies.

While it seems to make sense that local police who live in town know the needs of a town best and know its people, as to the cost, the argument to consolidate also had merit. Craft night have cured the deficit if his idea passed.

When comparing the Town of Lewiston's budget with the Town of Wheatfield's, there is one line that sticks out like a neon light: The cost of police protection.

The Towns of Wheatfield and Lewiston are similar in size, population, and other demographics. Lewiston pays over a million dollars per year for police protection. The Town of Wheatfield, utilizing coverage from the Niagara County Sherriff's Department, pays less than $200,000 per year. The $800,000 difference is more than the deficit.

In 2014 there was a $500,000 deficit -- the creation of the administration of Steven Reiter and he was soundly criticized for it by the current town supervisor. There was talk about having to put a town tax in place because running that size of annual deficits is unsustainable. After spending countless hours over the last several months, a 2015 budget was announced and it will also have a $500,000, or greater, deficit.

With costs of insurances, healthcare, supplies, and wages continuing to increase every year, it is now apparent that the town will have to either increase revenue or cut costs. Or impose a town tax.

At these rates of spending without new revenue, reserves will run dry in a few years.

Not long ago Lewiston did have a town tax. Every town that borders Lewiston has a town tax. So does the village of the same name. If cuts are not made - and that means a cut in services - a Town of Lewiston tax is inevitable.

It's a simple mathematical fact.

Some residents might agree that a town tax is the only way to go in order for everybody to keep what they have. Others might want to explore every chance to cut expenses before they impose a tax on each other.

One of the ways the town might try to trim its budget is by cutting the cost of outside legal counsel. Whenever the current administration can solve problems through compromise, intelligent discussion, or negotiations instead of pursuing remedies at law, generally tax dollars can be saved.

Two matters that are presently at law are the ongoing contract negotiations with the waste water treatment employees who are represented by the CSEA, and the tower issue on Upper Mountain Rd.

Since the early days of the Brochey administration, Brochey and his finance director Paul Kloosterman said that wages and benefits paid to town workers are high.

In the early spring, Brochey asked for a meeting with representatives from one of the two unions that represents town employees. At that meeting the employees were asked to take a voluntary $2.00 per hour cut in wages along with a reduction in their benefit package. Not surprisingly, the workers declined.

Kloosterman and Brochey publically stated that "Lewiston, across the board, has the highest paid employees in Niagara County." Brochey's proposed 2015 budget called for a zero percent increase for the town's non-union employees and clerical workers.

The Town Board however sets the town's budget and one of the board members asked if it was possible to grant a small raise for those non-union and clerical employees.

Kloosterman said that granting any raise is "irresponsible."

This prompted a choir of critics to chastise Brochey, complaining that, at $41,000 per year, Brochey is paid more than all but one of the 12 Town Supervisors in Niagara County and Kloosterman, at $60,000, is the highest paid Finance Director for any town in the County - the Town of Wheatfield, for instance, pays their Finance Director $25,000 per year- and hence it is easy for them to seek to cut other's wages or stop others from getting raises.

Of course this criticism does not change the fact that the Town of Lewiston's workers are among the highest paid in Niagara County, despite the fact that the two men saying it are also on the top end of the pay scale themselves.

Regardless, after Brochey asked town workers to take a voluntary pay cut, and said everyone had to "take a small hit" with the 2015 budget, he held the line on pay hikes for clerical. Town Councilman Ron Winkley suggested that perhaps the Town Board Members could each take a 5% pay cut to help fund the small raise for clerical. Brochey was neither for the raise - small or otherwise - nor for taking a cut for himself, saying "I'm not giving up 5% of my salary. I work hard for my money."

And, of course, the rebuttal is that most of the workers think they work hard for their money too.

Which is precisely the point. There is an impasse.

Now the town has hired a labor attorney to negotiate the union contract. There have been four meetings so far, with little progress made. Before long it is not inconceivable that attorney's fees will exceed the cost for raises sought by the union.

Then there is the cost of solving the problem with the 220-foot communication tower that was erected in July on property adjacent to Upper Mountain Road. The town is at odds with Niagara County over the placement and erection of that gruesome looking structure, part of a federally mandated "narrowbanding" project that streamlines and consolidates first responders' communications. The tower will alleviate coverage dead zones along the escarpment and gorge. Local firemen and first responders naturally want the tower. Homeowners in the shadow of it say the monstrous tower will lower property values, pose a safety hazard should it fall and that it is damnably ugly.

Both arguments have merit.

But here's where it gets murky.

The town has filed a lawsuit against the county - along with Motorola and the Upper Mountain Fire Company that owns the land where the tower was built. The town's argument is that it was done without a permit, without adhering to town regulations for heights of towers and without a building permit. Could there have been a better location nearby that was not explored? The town says yes.

A lawsuit where the town sues the county is like suing yourself, using your town tax dollars to file a lawsuit against the county, who will use your county tax dollars to defend it. Could the Town Board and the County Legislature have worked together to find a solution before the lawsuit was filed?

Meantime the lawsuit will cost a lot of money.

We have lawyers fighting over wages and a tower.

We can't consolidate the police.

No one wants to cut wages.

We can't keep spending $500,000 a year from our deficit.

Something's got to give.

That something may be a town tax.

What do you think?


This monstrous eyesore might someday save a life.






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