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Touma to Push Lawmakers to Reconsider Accepting State Board's Help

By Tony Farina

Andy Touma

Even before the gaming crisis put the city of Niagara Falls in a desperate financial crisis, the signs of a declining city were already in place.

The population, at slightly more than 50,000 in 2010, is less than half of what it was in 1960; the city's median income of $31,452 in 2010 was below the $37,607 median for all cities and the state median of $55,603; and 17.6 percent of families live in poverty compared to 10.8 percent statewide.

The deal ending the gaming crisis between the state and the Senecas has temporarily kept the city afloat, but rising health care and pension costs, along with dangerously low reserves, means the city still faces significant financial challenges. And remember, the city has exhausted 77 percent of its constitutional tax limit and 76 percent of its constitutional debt limit, according to the state comptroller's 2010 financial analysis. It is not a pretty picture.

That's why last December's decision by the Common Council to turn down help from Gov. Cuomo's newly created Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments left some city observers puzzled. It was set up by the governor to help distressed cities, of which Niagara Falls is certainly one, to meet future challenges by conducting a comprehensive financial review and offering recommendations and strategies, and in some cases grants and/or loans of up to $5 million under certain conditions.

Andrew Touma, the new kid on the block who won election to the council in last November's vote, believes lawmakers should reconsider working with the Restructuring Board and he intends to discuss the issue with his fellow lawmakers in the hopes of winning their support, and he wants to do it in time to allow for the board to make its six-month financial evaluation in time to help the mayor and city lawmakers deal with the 2015 budget later this year.

"I'm going to push it, there is no cost to the city," he said in a recent interview. "It is an independent board and it will help us get a perspective on the budget and contracts [moving forward]. As far as accepting financial assistance, Touma said he understands that the city would have to agree to certain recommendations, but he emphasized the Restructuring Board is not a control board, and that negotiations would be part of the process to protect the city's ability to work in good faith to improve the city's financial course.

"I believe it is doable," Touma said, "and I think having another set of eyes to possibly help see where you can tighten things up makes sense. I'm going to reach out to my fellow lawmakers and discuss it with them. And it is important to act in time for the review to take place before the budget process later this year."

Touma downplays the concern of some observers who see the Restructuring Board as a threat to the city's unionized labor force.

"It's not a take it-or-leave-it issue," said Touma, saying the unions and the city would have to agree to allow the board to serve as alternative arbitration panel for binding arbitration. "And you can always negotiate and make changes," he says, "all along the way."

The City of Rochester, which like Niagara Falls is facing severe budget challenges, has now agreed to work with the Restructuring Board which voted two weeks ago to conduct a six-month review of Rochester's finances.

A spokeswoman for the City of Rochester said "we look forward to working with the financial restructuring board to find additional opportunities for such partnerships or other solutions to providing the critical services our citizens need for the foreseeable future."

Rochester now becomes the largest municipality in the state to agree to work with the new board, becoming one of six municipalities that have made that decision.

It is Touma's view that working with the Restructuring Board is a win-win for the City of Niagara Falls, and he is hoping that his fellow lawmakers, who may be better informed now than they were last December when the first vote was taken, will reconsider their decision.

Touma could well argue that if it's good enough for Rochester, why not for Niagara Falls? The financial distress level in Niagara Falls would certainly make it eligible for help, and if Touma can convince his fellow lawmakers to support the relationship, it would then be up to Mayor Dyster to resubmit the application for their consideration.

Councilmember Kristen Grandinetti could not be reached for comment, and Glenn Choolokian, the former council president who voted along with the entire board against the idea of accepting help from the Restructuring Board, remains opposed.

In a statement, Choolokian said he believes the mayor is making the proposal "under the cover of the governor's skirts" in order get concessions from the unions that would be politically difficult for him to get on his own.

Touma is hoping he can convince Choolokian and the three other lawmakers that there is enough protection under the Restructuring Board's rules that would guard against unilateral action against unions. The unions would have to agree to accept the board as an alternative to binding arbitration.

Stay tuned!



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Feb 25, 2014