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JAN 06 - JAN 14, 2015

New Council Chairman Touma to Create Financial Oversight Panel

By Tony Farina

January 06, 2015

With the City of Niagara Falls facing severe budget challenges in the coming years, there is no better time than now for city leaders to work together to get the city's fiscal house in order before it comes tumbling down under the weight of growing structural deficits, dwindling reserves, declining property values, and gridlock fueled by the lack of trust on many issues between the mayor and the council.

Fighting over the tax cap, how to spend casino money, and how to deal with labor costs, the mayor and city lawmakers have basically been unable to find a way out of the growing crisis and the council even spurned the mayor's request for guidance and possibly financial help from the state through the governor's new Financial Restructuring Board.

But on Monday night, the Niagara Falls City Council may have taken a step that could help ease tension between Mayor Paul Dyster and city lawmakers by installing independent-minded Andy Touma as chairman in a unanimous vote, succeeding Charles Walker who was often aligned with Mayor Dyster. Walker joined Dyster ally Kristen Grandinetti and frequent mayoral critics Glenn Choolokian and Bob Anderson in supporting Touma as chairman for a one-year term. As he has been recently, Touma would be the critical third vote for any legislation before the council, but as chairman he will likely have a stronger voice in shaping that legislation with the administration as he works to build consensus.

"I am looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to help our city move forward, and I am grateful for the support I have received from my fellow lawmakers," said Touma after Monday's vote. "I feel I am prepared for the position and I want to make sure my colleagues on the council are kept abreast of what's going on every step of the way as we begin our journey together."

Touma says one of the first things he will do is establish an oversight committee made up of experts in financial matters from the private sector who can make informed recommendations to the city and the council on how to deal with the many fiscal challenges ahead.

"It will be a group of about six or seven people, and they will work with [Controller] Maria Brown to gather and review the information they need to help us deal with the problems we are facing and make suggestions," said Touma. "It is not the state's Financial Restructuring Board (which Touma favored) but it is another option to take a look at our problems."

Touma says he hopes the new committee will be able to begin its work soon, probably within a month, and he pledged to keep his fellow lawmakers informed every step of the way on the review and discussions with the administration as the oversight process goes on.

"We need common ground, and we need the mayor to work with us," said Touma. "The mayor has to realize we [the council] have a voice, and he must respond in such a way that we know he is listening. The only way to make this happen is with common ground. He should hold us accountable and we should hold him accountable. But we need to find common ground over the next several years to get things done."

One of the biggest challenges the city faces in dealing with the growing financial crisis is the $60 million share of the budget committed to labor contracts, by far the largest piece of the spending plan.

"We have to open this up [labor costs] and take a look at the costs and discuss the need for both sides to make concessions to build for the future," said Touma. "There are tough decisions to be made and it will take some time but we must begin the task."

Touma was first elected to the council a year ago, succeeding long-time member Sam Fruscione who was seen as a casualty of the fight over the Hamister hotel project. While he was expected to form a new council majority with Walker and Grandinetti in lockstep with the mayor, Touma has shown a strong independent streak and has demonstrated a willingness to look at both side of an issue before making a decision, voting no on the mayor's request for $26,000 in taxpayer money to fund the Hard Rock's New Year's Guitar Drop. Eventually lawmakers, including Touma, approved $10,000 for the event.

Touma has a long history as a teacher and educator and holds two master's degrees in education from Niagara University. He currently serves as a teacher on special assignment at LaSalle Preparatory School. He is a former assistant principal at North Tonawanda Middle School and was dean of students from 2007 – 2011 at Gaskill Preparatory School.

Touma knows that in order for Niagara Falls to escape its current financial crisis, it will take more than future development projects that have yet to begin to deliver their benefits. It will take consensus building among leaders and serious discussion with all of the parties at the table, including labor, to ensure the city's future short of a state-imposed control board if it can't meet its obligations. That's almost the case in Lockport where the state comptroller is overseeing the city's financial operations after approving a loan program to keep the city from going under.

Andrew Touma was the top vote getter in the primary and general election among a robust field of council candidates last year.






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Publisher and Editor in Chief: Frank Parlato
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