By Mike Hudson
If you take the view of Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster – that everything in the city is good and getting better under his leadership, you should get out and vote next Tuesday, Primary Day.
Incumbents Kristen Grandinetti and Andrew Touma both agreed that their record, tied to Mayor Dyster is stellar when they spoke at a public forum held at the Earl C. Brydges public library.
The overwhelming message of the other candidates who did appear at the debate was that the city is in dire need of change, and that Dyster and the present city Council are either unable or unwilling to provide it.
“No more reassessments,” said Candra Thomason, a former city councilwoman and mayoral candidate.
“They are just another form of taxes … Buyers are pulling back from buying houses because the assessments are higher than what they are worth.”
Candidate Lakea Perry agreed.
“What we need to reassess is the way tax dollars are spent,” she said.
“I decided to come here today because if I’m on the city council, I believe I should be able to answer any question that’s asked of me … I passionately love this city, and I want to encourage my son to move back to Niagara Falls,” Ms. Perry added.
Candidate Sam Archie, who has been active in city politics for years, pointed to the obvious – in a city that’s about to go bankrupt, out of control spending is probably not the best course of action.
“Everybody’s got to tighten their belts in City Hall. We can’t depend on the casino funds to bail us out, we should have not been doing that for the day-to-day operations of the city,” Mr. Archie said. “We need to learn the word ‘no.’ It starts by saying ‘no’ to contractors that come in with a low bid because the majority council is going to give them everything they want.”
Pointing to the mismanagement of funds flowing into city coffers from the Seneca Casino Compact, Mr. Archie said there was simply no excuse.
“At least $120 million of casino finds was used for budgets, which should have never happened,” he said.
Ms. Perry agreed.
“Positions (in city government) were created that shouldn’t have been,” she said. “We should have a separate contract with the Seneca for the services they use. With the bidding process and change orders and RFPs, there is no documentation where the money is going.”
Bob Pascoal, who heads up an organization of landlords here, focused on high taxes and poor code enforcement.
“We are going to be attractive to Buffalo. As their property values rise, there’s going to be more demand for the property in Niagara Falls … We are overtaxed,” he said. “Right now we are in a situation where we actually punish people for improving their property. When you put on a new roof, put on siding, windows, a driveway, and then the tax man wants to go out and assess you. We are going to punish you by charging more taxes because you fixed up your property. What it does is it encourages people to keep their property the way that is, and not in a very good state. But It may be beautiful on the inside.”
“The council is not fully exercising their powers (in providing financial oversight of the city),” Mr. Pascoal added.
Former Niagara Gazette publisher Chris Voccio said he chose to retire in Niagara Falls because he sees an unlimited potential for growth.
“I could have retired anywhere when I did so at age 50 … An outsider’s perspective may just be what this city needs, he said. “We’re going to need the help of the unions in order to get us out of this hole we’re in … The financial advisory board should never have been disbanded … Consolidation of departments has to be on the table.”
And, citing the overabundance of schoolteachers on the city Council, he added;
“We are not following sound budget practices. Teachers are vitally important to civilization. But I’m not sure they have much experience in the budget process.”
Mr. Pascoal rightly pointed out that, since the city loses around 1,000 residents a year due to high taxes, high crime and a poor standard of living, expensive programs designed to lure new residents might not be the way to go.
“We shouldn’t be quite so worried about trying to attract new people to Niagara Falls, he said. “The main concern should be to keep the people we have here here. If we can keep the people we have here here it will be a magnet for other people.”
There are nine candidates running in the primary for three open seats on the city Council. Five Democrats and four Republicans. Two incumbents, Kristen Grandinetti and Andrew Touma, are essentially running on their records. They did not appear at the debate.
“I will do whatever it takes to help this city whether I’m in office or out of office,” said Ms. Thomason. “I’m hoping that you see here tonight that it doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats, Republicans, conservatives or independents. But it matters that we are a community and that we work together.”
Mr. Voccio added this word of advice: “When you go into the election, seriously consider voting differently than you’ve ever voted before.”
Mr. Archie was blunt in his agreement.
“If you want real change, then we need to elect a new Council,” he said.