LOCKPORT – A pay increase for Sheriff James R. Voutour drew no objections, but there was plenty of debate over the future of the Refuse Disposal District and of senior citizen nutrition programs, as the Niagara County Legislature worked over the 2013 budget last week.
The budget, which passed by a 10-5 vote at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, raises the amount to be collected in taxes by 1.89 percent. The average “full-value tax rate,” which no one in the county will actually pay, rose by 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or 1.16 percent, to $7.72.
Several municipalities, such as the city and town of Lockport, Cambria, Hartland and Somerset, have assessment rolls close to full value, and their tax rates will come within a few pennies of the average. Others, such as the towns of Lewiston, Niagara and Wheatfield, are outdated, and their tax rates will be substantially higher than the norm.
During a 4½-hour meeting, the 15 legislators dealt with 39 proposed amendments to the $321.8 million spending plan. Twenty-one were passed unanimously, three were withdrawn, and 15 were defeated, most on party-line votes of 12-3, with the Republican majority rejecting Democratic suggestions.
One that caused no disagreement was a proposal to give Voutour a 2.5 percent raise in each of the next four years.
Voutour, a Lockport Democrat who was re-elected without opposition to his second term last month, had worked his entire first term at the same pay, $98,245 a year.
Voutour bolstered his raise request with a three-page list of accomplishments during the last four years.
They included the winning of major grants, such as $2 million toward the county’s new emergency radio network to be built next year, and $400,000 to cover some of the cost of shifting North Tonawanda police dispatchers to the county payroll.
Voutour said his administration also reduced the overtime costs at the County Jail by $400,000 during his tenure and cut pharmaceutical costs for inmates by $200,000 before the privatization of medical services, which takes effect Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ effort to prevent two midyear layoffs at the Refuse District was defeated, but some majority legislators broke ranks over the issue.
A heavy-equipment operator and a clerical worker are to be dismissed as of July 1. The effort to restore the operator job failed on a 9-6 vote, with Niagara Falls Democrats Jason A. Zona, Dennis F. Virtuoso and Owen T. Steed being joined on the losing side by Kathryn L. Lance, R-Wheatfield, W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, and Anthony J. Nemi, I-Lockport.
On the clerical position, Lance switched sides to make it a 10-5 vote in favor of the layoff.
Zona said the Refuse District board, which is a committee of legislators, hasn’t made any decisions yet on the future of the district’s only active landfill. He called the layoffs “irresponsible” at a time when consulting and legal costs at the district are being increased.
Despite all that, the district’s tax levy was trimmed by 10 percent, Zona said.
Nemi voted against the district’s budget in committee. He said Director Richard P. Pope, who is now on paid administrative leave, promised in September that a report on the district’s operations would be coming soon.
“We’re still waiting for that report to come out,” Nemi said. “How can you cut jobs if you don’t know you’ll need them?”
“This is an operation that needs to be reduced and closed down,” County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz declared. “There are other options available to the public.”
The only active landfill handles only construction and demolition debris. There are disputes over whether it is profitable and how long it will have space available.
Pope was placed on leave Nov. 1 after Glatz received allegations that he was violating the county’s policies on residency and use of county vehicles.
Glatz promised a public report, but he has yet to issue one. He said attorneys for Pope and the county are exchanging memos on the matter. “It’s really not like a negotiation,” he said. “It takes on a more formal aspect when lawyers are involved.”
The county would have to go through a trial-like hearing to fire Pope, who has held the directorship since 1993. “If we have to go that route, we’ll go that route,” Glatz said.
Dawn M. Timm, the county’s environmental coordinator, said she is now supervising the Refuse District. “In the absence of Rick, I’m assisting the county manager and [Refuse District Chairman] John Syracuse, just making sure the bills are paid and the day-to-day operations are handled,” Timm said.
Meanwhile, the Legislature rejected plans to restore full services at three senior citizen nutrition sites targeted for cutbacks in the new year: at St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Niagara Falls; Tuscarora Nation House on the reservation; and Summit View Apartments, Wheatfield.
Originally proposed for shutdown by Office for the Aging Director Kenneth M. Genewick, the sites will now be open three days a week.
Shirley J. Hamilton, president of the Niagara Falls chapter of the NAACP, sent a letter pointing out that two of those three sites serve primarily minority residents.
She called for elimination of patronage jobs and duplicative county services, with some departments offering the same services in Lockport, Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda.
Restoring of a part-time nutrition aide position to the budget was defeated, 10-5, with Cheree J. Copelin, R-Niagara Falls, and Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, joining the three Democrats on the losing side.
“Instead of cutting these programs, we should be looking to improve them,” Steed said.
The Legislature agreed to create a new full-time deputy sheriff position to patrol exclusively in Wheatfield, with the town paying the full $88,244 cost of salary and benefits.
Also, the Legislature majority refused to cut the pay of the administrator of the Conflict Defender’s Office, even though the incumbent, Robert M. Pusateri, is retiring. Also, it gave a 33 percent raise to part-time personnel officer Joseph A. Vacanti Jr., from $15,000 to $20,000 a year. The Democrats sought to delete that raise.