NIAGARA FALLS – City lawmakers on Wednesday took the ax to Mayor Paul A. Dyster’s proposed budget, making a slew of cuts that would erase a proposed 8 percent tax hike and restore half of the two dozen jobs that were set to be cut from city government.
All but one of the 150 amendments to the budget passed unanimously, and the deepest cuts come from the areas of economic development and planning – specifically the city’s funding of the state’s economic revitalization arm, USA Niagara Development Corp.
Lawmakers also slashed the salaries of two of Dyster’s top department heads and cut funds set aside for the use of outside consultants on city projects, road paving and public safety overtime. The City Council also created its own discretionary account that leaders said could be used for unexpected costs.
“Based on comments from [residents after] the mayor’s budget, we just did what they told us to do,” said Council Chairman Sam F. Fruscione.
The Council cut roughly $3.1 million in spending from Dyster’s proposed $96 million budget, with the greatest amount coming from funds to USA Niagara, which has worked to revitalize the barren downtown development scene for the past decade. Dyster said he would review the amendments before commenting but said he was most concerned about the cuts to the development agency.
“If anything, we’ve been trying to accelerate economic development downtown,” Dyster said. “In order to get results, you have to make investments.”
Fruscione questioned the city’s return on its yearly investment.
“At this point in time, we’re breaking our ties with USA Niagara,” Fruscione said. “You want real development? Keep the tax rate at zero percent – you’ll get development.”
The Council also slashed two jobs in the planning and economic development department – which were funded by revenues from the Seneca Niagara Casino – and decided not to fill the position of the business development director, which has been vacant since January. Fruscione said other members of the department would pick up their responsibilities.
Lawmakers then cut the salary of City Administrator Donna D. Owens by $40,000 and the salary of City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka by $18,000. After the reductions, Owens and Skurka are set to make $70,000 and $77,000, respectively. City officials sought to portray the cuts as political – the two department heads have repeatedly clashed with the Council – while Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian disputed that notion.
“We’re looking at productivity, who is was really doing the work for the money, and those two positions really needed to be decreased,” said Choolokian, who Fruscione credited with making most of the budget amendments.
The Council held no public budget hearings with department heads, as it had done in prior years. Fruscione said the Council did not have enough time – it had one month instead of two to amend the budget – because Dyster delayed his presentation of the budget by a month.
Dyster is expected to veto many of the cuts and the Council will need four votes to override the vetoes. The budget must be adopted by Dec. 1. The city struggled to balance the budget, leaders said, because of $58 million in unpaid revenues from the Seneca Niagara Casino.