Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster is balancing his last budget on a $12 million advance from the state against casino revenues and another $4 million from a garbage user fee.
During his presentation to the City Council Tuesday, the mayor said Niagara Falls' long-term future is good, but its fiscal picture right now is not.
"I'm delivering to the City Council a budget that decreases the size of city government, incorporates important recommendations from both the state's financial restructuring board and the city's own financial advisory panel and reduces our reliance on tribal revenue funds to pay for city services," Dyster said.
He decided the long-term reliance on revenues from the Seneca Niagara Casino must go away. That revenue has stopped coming in because of the fight between the Seneca Nation and Albany.
In addition to the casino revenue issue, Dyster said he had to balance rapidly rising health insurance costs and even an extra pay day in a calendar quirk - a $1.3 million quirk - which prompted the garbage user fee.
"We didn't have to charge this in the past, but I think it's also the case, what I tried to do in the speech today is lay out the alternatives," Dyster said after his presentation, "and if you look at the alternative: a massive tax increase that takes us up to 95% of our constitutional taxing limit or large-scale layoffs to public safety. By comparison, doing a user fee seems to be the more reasonable and moderate alternative."
Dyster said the fee for one garbage tote and one recyling tote would be set at $218 a year.
"That's less than $4.20 per week," he said. "By removing street sweeping debris, light removal waste and fire disposal costs from the calculation and funding them through the general fund, we have been able to significantly reduce the overall cost of the user fee."
City council member Chris Voccio is one of the candidates to replace the retiring Dyster. Voccio said he opposes the new fee.
"What the user fee does, it's a cop out and it avoids making the painful decisions about restructuring the cost of government. So I oppose the user fee," Voccio said. "But it's worse than just this user fee, because not only do we have this proposed user fee, but we also have a proposed tax increase."
Speaking to reporters after the budget presentation, he said the unsustainable fiscal situation requires fundamental changes, not just revenue increases for 2020 over 2019.
"It was going to be much higher than the 2019 budget, because of health insurance and the payroll issue that the mayor talked about," Voccio said. "I estimated that the expenses might be $100 million and were budgeted for next year at $98.9 million, with less than $90 million in revenues. That's not a good formula for success."
Voccio said the city and city unions have to work out how to cut the cost of government. The council will start budget hearings on Monday, with Voccio predicting some tough questions for city department heads.