Last November the citizens of Lewiston voted for a change in direction by electing retired business owner Dennis Brochey to be their town supervisor. He defeated councilman Erie Palmer, who abruptly resigned his office last month.
Brochey had fresh ideas and promised a new direction for the town, but many local political observers say the vote was also a referendum on the public's opinion of former Supervisor Steven L. Reiter.
There can be little doubt that the public trust of most Lewiston residents has been shaken by the multiple investigations of the past four years and the improper and allegedly illegal actions of Reiter.
But restoring the public trust in their elected officials isn't the only problem left behind by Reiter and company. After less than three months in office, Brochey and town finance director and C.P.A. Paul Kloosterman are completing a thorough audit of town finances.
Four years of over-spending and irresponsible financial planning have left the Town of Lewiston with depleted bank coffers and a mountain of debt.
"The town has been very generous to special interests," Brochey said.
On top of that there is no large reserve fund balance that the town can use for a rainy day fund or to cover long range shortfalls. The reserve account is now under $2 million. It was $4.3 million four years ago.
On top of that, during the last four years, the town borrowed over $6 million,, bringing its total debt from $9 million to upwards of $14 million, the maximum it can borrow.
"I told everybody I am not bonding anything," Brochey said. "We are going to have to live within our means".
It now appears there will be a $500,000 budget shortfall for 2014, as well.
One of the items that contributed to the shortfall is that Modern Disposal's contribution to the town from tipping fees was down by about $200,000 last year.
To restore town finances to a healthy level and avoid implementing a town tax, it will require an entirely different approach to doing business. Much of a local government's spending is termed as "non-discretionary." That money is the mandatory spending that has to be done to pay the bills to keep providing the necessary services to the community. Any real savings can only be found in the spending of discretionary funds, which are basically all of the items that are optional.
The second step to a healthy financial situation is to find new sources of revenue. In today's economy that is not going to be an easy task. Ideally it will be a combination of both trimming spending and increasing revenue that will deliver the best results in the shortest period of time.
To make up for the shortfall, Brochey has a few ideas.
One of them is to get Artpark to start paying for police protection.
Brochey admitted that not all townspeople are enamored with the loud and sometimes unruly concerts that require 16 of the town's 18-member police force to be on hand to keep the peace.
Most of the 225,000 annual concert goers are from out of own.
Artpark has 12 Tuesday and five Wednesday summer concerts. Artpark concerts have cost the town $550,000 for police over the last 11 years, Brochey estimates.
In fact, over the past 11 years, Brochey estimates, the town has given to Artpark $1.8 million, a combination of police services and a share of Modern's tipping fees.
An agreement with Modern dating back several years gives the town, on top of the regular tipping fees (which amounted to $814,000 last year), an additional smaller fee to be dedicated toward recreation. Somehow previous, generous town officials decided to give all of that extra money- about $100,000 per year - to Artpark to use for programs at the park.
The town has given more than $1.1 million to the state park from those fees.
"We could have kept that money for our own," said Brochey, "I am holding back this year on giving Artpark $114,000 (from Modern's recreational tipping fees). I want that money used to offset the cost of police. "
While Artpark officials objected to the idea, Brochey was clear. "You can't expect me to raise taxes for the people of Lewiston to put on Artpark shows," he said.
Another issue Brochey plans to pursue is the Bridge Commission.
He said the commission pays $500,000 annually to Queenston, Ont., but only $17,000 to Lewiston despite having offices here.
"There is no reason in the world that this private organization does not pay a half-a- million to us, like they do in Canada," Brochey said.
Speaking of the Joseph Davis Park, Brochey said, "Over $1 million has been spent there and there is very little to show for it.
"I would like to get out of Joe Davis. Some board members want to keep going... But I doubt we can keep it. I see very little use. I have seen 3, 4 people there at one time, playing Frisbee. Other than that I can't say people are using it... If New York State couldn't make a go of it, how are we going to make a go of it?
"I ran a business for 40 years and I understand finances and overhead and revenue and analyzing a budget and being open minded. I am wiser with my money. I want to see the people in town getting the benefit, not just people outside the town."
Sounds like a plan.