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OCT 21- OCT 28, 2014

Restaino Calls for Dyster Transparency Stop Secret, Late Budget Process!

By Robert Restaino

October 21, 2014

Robert Restaino, Esq. Niagara Falls

For the past several months I have worked at consolidating the charters of the city of Niagara Falls. While the task has been laborious (and sometimes confounding), with the help of corporation counsel, Craig Johnson, the effort has moved along to its expected goal. There are, as one might expect, various provisions of one or both charters that are obsolete, or in conflict which require review, reconciliation or redacting.

One area, however, which is not subject to any confusion in interpretation, is the section on budget preparation and presentation. The charter of 1985, as amended by local law, indicates clearly that the executive budget is to be presented by October 1 of each year.

For the second time in a three-year span the deadline was missed; both times the deadline was missed Mayor Paul Dyster stated that things are "worse than expected" financially.

There should be no excuse for the charter not to be followed.

In 2012, the distribution of casino revenue to the City was held up due to the conflict between NY State and the Seneca Nation; we were told that the budget problems were because we did not get the casino cash. When the cash finally came, the attitude was "problem solved." That was false.

Now we know the problems remain.

The fact of the matter is that our city government has been spending more money than has been coming in for years. They have created this problem and seem to have no answer on how to solve it.

This is not solely about how casino cash is used; it is about how our city is being managed.

Good business and financial decisions require the best information. If we had better controls on our public dollars we would be able to stretch our money further, to increase job opportunities for our residents, to provide better police protection as well as well-maintained roads and more enjoyable parks and recreational activities. And, we could do these things without placing such a heavy burden on taxpayers.

Budget management and forecasting should be all year round, which would lead to an on-time budget being delivered regardless of what it proposes.

It is time that the financial management of our city is made far more transparent.  We need to open up our budget management process so that we are not surprised when financial difficulties occur. In a world where real-time information makes it possible to turn around multi-billion dollar transactions in minutes, there is no excuse for our city to keep getting "surprised" at its financial condition.

Two simple suggestions for inclusion and transparency could include:

• Making budget hearings an "ongoing review- every month - not just 30-60 days at year's end;

• Create an organized committee structure for city council that includes a budget committee - to perform ongoing oversight, participate in budget meetings with department heads and remain engaged in the most important task of the council

It is extremely troubling that our city government appears to be reactive to the budgetary problems that it faces. If it was being proactive, we would have been hearing about this well before October 1st and the mayor's budget would be presented on time.  If it was proactive, the council and city residents would have the opportunity to review the budget plan and provide input well before the council must act.

The reality is that neither the mayor or the council can solve this alone. It is going to take the entire community coming together to fix this problem. Hard choices will need to be made and because of that we need the public involved to shape the community in a way we, as residents, want to shape it.

Neither the Council nor Mayor nor city employees or business leaders can solve this on their own; we all need to be included in the process.

To improve the quality of life we need a better managed city government, and that starts by ending the secrecy. We need processes and programs that reach out and include citizens in decision-making.

Delaying the presentation of the budget reduces the opportunity for citizen participation.

One only needs to look at recent history with the lack of citizen participation and input before the decision was made to institute a new sanitation and recycling program.

It is going to take the entire community coming together to fix this problem, we must all be included in the discussion to be a part of the solution.

The way to better manage our city is to let we, the people, who struggle with our own budgets every day, have a far greater voice in decision making. Our city residents have great character and ability, our city government needs to talk with, and not at, us; and together we can work on shaping the community we want and can afford.





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