NIAGARA FALLS – A political battle is brewing among city officials who have stark disagreements about the direction of the city.
But the debate has nothing to do with plans for a new casino, the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway or the usual hot-button topics.
City leaders are instead fighting over unexpected spending cuts that have followed last year’s acrimonious budget process.
The City Council last week cut funding for three community groups that was approved and adopted in the 2013 budget.
The move drew outrage from hundreds of community leaders and volunteers, and has also raised questions about the city budget process as a whole.
The City Council’s three-man majority made the cuts to the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center ($30,000), the city’s Block Club Council ($10,000) and the Niagara Beautification Commission ($5,000).
The councilmen last week defended the cuts, saying the “special interest groups” could no longer be funded because of dire financial straits.
“They got 10 years of money when other groups didn’t,” said Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian. “They had quite a ride there. Ten years later, you’re still not self-sufficient?”
Councilmen Sam Fruscione dismissed the notion that the 400 estimated residents who showed up at a recent City Council meeting constituted a majority opinion.
“Where were the other 49,600 people?” Fruscione asked. “There were only 400 people there.”
Mayor Paul A. Dyster said he was shocked at the cuts because the expenditures come mostly from bed tax revenues – not taxpayer money – and because the spending was approved in the adopted city budget.
“They’re beginning to challenge the way the charter reads in regard to the budget process,” Dyster said of the Council. “It’s a defined process between the legislative and executive branches. What stability is there for any function of government?”
Leaders at the nonprofit groups said they were blindsided by the cuts after they were appropriated in the budget.
“If we had known about this six or nine months ago, we could have planned,” said NACC marketing director Bob Drozdow- ski. “That $30,000 probably would have gone toward our heating bills.”
Dyster suggested the cuts were politically motivated, noting he has actively supported the cultural center and the block clubs. He also said he rejected a recent request for a patronage job within the Council offices.
The councilmen bristled at the suggestion, saying they made the cuts because Dyster budgeted more than $5 million in the 2013 budget in expected casino revenues – money that has not come into the city coffers because of the state’s ongoing dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Fruscione said the Council is simply stowing away reserve funds so that if the casino dispute gets resolved this year – which he doubts – the city will be able to pay its bills.
“People have to remember that when we place a number in the budget, it’s just a number until we appropriate it,” Fruscione said. “It’s not written in stone. It’s just numbers on a piece of paper.”
Fruscione and Choolokian said they would save most of the money but spend it on other items, including an increased police presence in the city.
Dyster said his relationship with the City Council has been “deteriorating” ever since Choolokian became chairman.
“I want to have a good working relationship with the Council members … regardless of policy differences,” Dyster said. “The Council majority, to me, does not seem to be offering an alternate vision for moving the city forward.”
Choolokian, meanwhile, said he considers his relationship with the mayor just fine.
“Every time the mayor needs something, we work together,” he said. “Everything we do … is together.”