After nearly one year on the job, the Niagara Falls Financial Review Panel, a volunteer board appointed by the council to examine and recommend fixes to the administration's fiscal woes, delivered their long-awaited final report at the November 30 council meeting. Chief among their list of recommendations to repair the city's well documented dysfunctional finance management system was...drum roll, please..."Hire a Budget Director!"
Yes. We kid you not. And it took the panel nearly a year and the review of "reams of data" to include that jewel in their report. Recommending the hiring of a Budget Director at city hall is akin to hiring a new Navigator on the Titanic after the iceberg had been struck. Frankly, we're left wondering if someone isn't being lined up for a new, cushy job. How sad, but how typical, it would be if this panel's legacy turns out to be the expansion of the very bureaucracy that has mishandled millions in casino revenue and taxpayer dollars...a bureaucracy the panel was charged to analyze and recommend for financial repair.
We ask, exactly what were the goals of this finance panel and what were the realistic expectations when Council Chairman Andrew Touma stoked the panel largely with those who are or were connected to the city school district? Mr. Touma is, after all, a school district employee. So, we're left with the uncomfortable feeling that all of this Financial Review Panel whoop-de-do has, in the end, all the sincerity of an Iron Curtain show trial from the Fifties.
As is often the case with citizen panels it's not what the panel addresses and comments upon that's telling, it's what they ignore and evade that's key. In this instance city hall's citizen finance experts ducked the real financial issues, big time.
While the panel members wrote that: a Budget Director must be hired, an earlier jump on budget preparation must be had, and more timely budget data should be developed and shared, they ignored what actually vexes the city financial management system: irresponsible spending and a complete lack of accountability. The reality of this administration's eight years of money management has been highlighted by a shocking lack of transparency and endless wasteful expenditures even as the NYS Comptroller (May 2013) sternly told the city to knock off the cooking of the books.
For eight years Mayor Paul Dyster has presided over the draining of the casino revenue account while calling himself the "casino revenue gatekeeper." Now that the gate is fully open and the revenue is gone he's shifted the blame to the council, the State, and city employees. And a Budget Director could fix this sort of extravagance exactly how?
The 2013 NYS Comptroller's audit revealed: the mishandling of millions of dollars dedicated to city projects, more than a million dollars unaccounted for, and the misuse of casino revenue in closing budget gaps. Tell us how better communication between mayor and council could possibly eliminate such a misuse of funds?
While the city edges toward the introduction of a control board (the State Finance Restructuring Board is already here) Mayor Dyster plows ahead with a $44 million train station that has no visible means of support - although it will open this year - and will service a mere handful of daily riders. And a more timely budget preparation process is supposed to stop such brazen money mismanagement?
We've said it before, the financial problems of this administration are willfully, suspiciously, self-inflicted and need to be identified, rooted out, and made to go away. Who to do it? Well, a sincere but toothless finance panel that was appointed by the government that caused the problem can't possibly fix what ails the city.
Nothing in the city's present, or future, fiscal picture, will improve until an outside authority - such as a control board - steps in and asks the inconvenient questions that need to be asked and imposes the needed remedies.