July 16 Island Dispatch
Rightsizing our town government
by Kevin M. Backus, Chairman, Conservative Party of Grand Island
Over the years, steps have been taken to downsize the town government and reduce costs to Grand Island taxpayers. One noticeable example was the combination of the Receiver of Taxes office with the Town Clerk's office. The town Conservative Party was responsible for that initial suggestion. We have a reputation for advancing fiscal responsibility that's well deserved. People, therefore, naturally assume that we'll support Kevin Gaughan's efforts to downsize the Town Council -- we don't!
Reducing the number of councilors serving from five down to three would seriously hamper the coordination and functioning of town government, its departments, would lessen sound fiscal oversight, as well as reducing and hindering our government's responsiveness to its citizens.
And what would we gain? We're not, as one Islander seemed to think, going to merge with some other entity to save tax costs. We're not the Village of Kenmore or Williamsville. We're not a tiny landlocked island inside a larger township; whatever happens at the polls, we will still be an island in the Niagara with all the unique services that must be provided.
So what does one hope to gain? The petitioner who came to my house told me he wants to reduce the town council by two members; the goal being to save two salaries, benefits and possible future retirement payments. He asked me if I realized that our town was started with not five but three town councilmen.
That's true. If we reduce the Town Board we'd save two salaries (totaling less than $40,000). We'd recoup the town's contribution to health insurance for those who choose to accept it (not all do); and we'd save the minimal amount contributed to retirement.
What would we lose? I wonder if those collecting petitions are telling people that when the population of Grand Island grew that we automatically gained those two council positions.
They replaced two town justices who previously served both as council members and justices. This was necessary in response to a growing population and an equally expanding workload for both the council and the court. Presently, to serve our town, this part time position requires approximately 30 hours per week from our councilors not including time spent running for office. They participate in 23 board meetings per year and over 100 workshops. Of course, participating in each of those meetings require hours of preparation from each member. The four members serve as liaisons to the 10 advisory boards. Citizens serving on these boards deal with issues vital to the well-being of our community and depend on the active involvement of council members. Over and above these regular meetings are meetings with the police, the courts, and the school district. These efforts have produced revenues and an increase in service to the taxpayers of our town.
Our council members work tirelessly for the welfare of our community and are our biggest and best fiscal watchdogs. They were responsible for an insurance savings of $100,000 per year. They've done away with "take home cars" for government town positions.
The list could go on. Grand Island is served well by our council of four plus our supervisor. To redistribute this load among the two remaining councilors would be impossible.
We will lose accessibility to our councilmen. We will lose the careful research and collaboration that have netted costs savings to the town time and time again. We will hamper communication between council members and we would create a volatile situation. The stability of the board could be lost in a single election.
Downsizing a town board might be the right decision for other local municipalities; but it would surely be a costly mistake for our Island.
Sept. 3 Island Dispatch
Think before you jump at downsizing GI Town Board
The recent proposal to downsize town government from four council members to two looks very good at the first glance. Why not save $70,000-plus per year? Isn't that progressive for politics in general?
The plain answer is "No" to both questions if the end result is far less cost-effective to the community. The red herring, in this case, is to overlook the accountability and fiscal situation in the absence of two additional council persons. Is it more or less possible to influence or control a group of four or a group of two? Which one or ones of those council persons in their 23 regular meetings and over 70 workshops accounts for saving the town hundreds of thousands of dollars on various proposals or projects?
That's the reason for council members: To discuss and debate those actions which best support our town financially. Should we do this with one arm tied behind our back? Observe the four council members. Is there a single one among them that you would be ashamed to introduce to a friend or family? We are indeed fortunate to have four council members highly skilled, competent and, frankly, not in dire need of this position. Rather, they have served, despite a growing community, with more effort and the same pay for the last decade.
So think it over before you jump at the $70,000 reduction in salary. Don't ignore the hundreds of thousands their presence saves. I'm informed that the $70,000 savings amounts to $10.50 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. In return for accountability and hundreds of thousands in savings, I think I am willing to sweat the small stuff. Funny thing about facts, isn't it? They are such stubborn things.
Thomas N. Clabeaux, Chairman, Independence Party, Grand Island
Sept. 10 Island Dispatch
Consider ‘yes' to smaller Grand Island Town Board
In the interest of a balanced debate before the Sept. 23 special election on whether to eliminate two town council positions, here are some points for consideration:
1. Regardless of the size of the Town Board, basic services would remain the same. The independence of Grand Island governance is also unaffected.
2. Good representation is not a function of the number of board members, but of their competence and integrity.
3. Regular elections give us control of the makeup of the Town Board.
4. Union contract agreements and the like are matters of public record regardless of the size of the Town Board, and therefore under ultimate public review.
5. It is hard to imagine a situation which would be critically affected by the absence of one board member. Most important issues are ongoing for months or even years, or are totally predictable, so there is great flexibility for voting on them. As noted by Craig Eddy (Aug. 20 Island Dispatch): "Every single vote the Town Board has had this year has been unanimous. There have been 14 board meetings and not a single dissenting vote." Three Board members would have produced the same result, but at an annual savings of $70,000 -- the salary and benefit costs of two council members (Sept. 3 Island Dispatch).
6. In case of some emergencies, higher levels of government would be involved, so our welfare would not be compromised by having a smaller board.
7. Other towns which have decided to work with fewer board members expect to be fully able to conduct daily business and to have the ongoing communications desired by their citizens. Saying these things would be too difficult for Grand Island "does not compute."
Gaughan's efforts misguided
Over the last few months of reading about downsizing of town boards and dissolving all villages, I feel the need to write this letter.
Activist Kevin Gaughan has been out promoting the downsizing of town boards and eliminating all villages, assuring us this is the only way to cut taxes in the 25 towns and 16 villages of Erie County. I feel his ultimate goal, of course, is centralized government. While his thoughts may be well intended, his actions are very much misguided.
If Mr. Gaughan really wants to save Erie County residents millions of dollars, he should direct his efforts to the New York state government, and challenge our Medicaid system, which is the highest in the nation -- higher than both the state of California and Texas together. All of this money, which incidentally is grossly mismanaged and wasteful, comes from our property tax dollars. This would truly save millions of tax dollars and cut our tax bills.
Another area Mr. Gaughan could challenge to save millions of tax dollars are in consolidation of school districts and superintendents.
Kevin Gaughan's effort on reducing town boards would at best save pennies in each town. I am not saying pennies are not important. They are, but not at the expense of losing a proven sound method of government.
Starting in 1973 I was elected and re-elected to seven consecutive four-year terms as your highway superintendant. Now retired, I tried to do the job you expected of me. During this time I served with five different supervisors and many Town Board members. Every one of them, Democrat or Republican tried to do the best for our town. I ask each one of you to investigate and see exactly what your Town Board members really do, how many meetings they attend, as well as how many hours they work. I think you will be very surprised.
I urge all of you to make it your business to vote "no" for the downsizing of our board. Surely you don't want two persons running our town and, in some cases, believe me, it could be one person.
I have always felt we have a wonderful community of intelligent people who do not need some outsider telling us how to run our government.
Norman J. Mrkall, Highway Superintendent, retired
Vote ‘no' on downsizing
I am writing with deep concern over the misinformation that is circulating the Island by Kevin Gaughan and his five supporters to influence voters to downsize the Grand Island Town Council.
I strongly agree that New York state and the federal government are too fat and need to be downsized. Just look in the phone book or online and you will find agencies that you did not even know existed. That is a project for downsizing.
I do not think it is reasonable for a state senator or assemblyperson to have a staff budget of close to a million dollars. Spending money on birthday cards, hiring personal staffs, using government cars as personal vehicles, ratcheting up pension benefits by giving themselves a raises every year. Talk about downsizing -- that's a project that will save millions of tax dollars across the state.
Consolidating the plethora of agencies, at the state and federal levels, and all of the salaries equated with them is another project for Kevin Gaughan to work on to downsize.
And then there is the multibillion dollar Medicaid program. Wow, that is downsizing program just waiting to be attacked. There are lots of good solid reasons to downsize government, its agencies and programs, which will have at least an affect of billions of dollars of taxpayer relief. I am in favor of all of it, if just someone like Kevin Gaughan would like to tackle it.
I am not in favor of downsizing representation versus programs and agencies. When you downsize your representation, you increase the power of the people who are left. Here in Grand Island, we would have three men in the room! That is how they operate in Albany. We have all seen that result. Why would you want that here?
Our representatives are part time. They make less than $20,000 per year. They work other jobs and attend nightly and weekend meetings. They attend every event, meet with anyone who asks them to, and they are our only direct link to getting things done on Grand Island.
They do not have government cars, lifetime health insurance, big pensions, individual personal assistants, government cell phones, free E-ZPass, they do not send monthly mailers, hold breakfasts, or send birthday cards at the expense of the Grand Island taxpayer.
What they do is represent us by working closely with residents, town employees, and 13 volunteer boards to make sure that the town is fiscally solvent, that our local taxes stay in check, that services are delivered to increase the quality of life of all of us who live and work on Grand Island. Most of us take for granted that our water tastes good, the toilets flush, the roads are plowed, the Golden Age Center is funded, housing is well built, the parks are beautiful, but the truth is the reason for the great quality of life here is because we have competent elected officials.
Without them, who is going to do all of that work? Who? We will have to hire full-time staff to replace the part-time council people, thereby increasing the town budget, pension, health insurance, etc. They, however, will have no decision-making abilities. How much sense does that make? Considering what we lose, what do we gain? A bigger tax bill to pay for the full-time employees that can't make a decision when we call with an issue. That is not cost effective, in my opinion, that's stupid.
Kevin Gaughan claims it will save us money. It will not save us money. Downsizing the Grand Island Town Council will not save money, period. It will however, take away our representation.
Compared to the millions and billions of dollars of bloated government in the state, not to mention the federal government, Grand Island town government is ahead of the curve. The Town Board has already downsized and consolidated several departments. Grand Island is a growing community. We do not have the issues that face our neighboring communities, like duplication of services; we are an Island, without a village, plain and simple.
If downsizing is his passion, Kevin Gaughan should be working on downsizing ineffective programs and agencies, not the representation of small towns whose budgets are less than Sheldon Silver's.
Even though Kevin Gaughan made the comment at a public meeting that he thinks we should be a democracy, we are a republic. As a republic for which it stands, I for one stand for adequate representation and the power to vote no on downsizing our council.
Debora Michaux, Grand Island, Republican Party Chairwoman
Sept. 17 Island Dispatch
5-member board gives best representation
I oppose downsizing the Town Board from five to three members.
The argument that lifetime health care costs (legacy costs) will be saved if we downsize is not true. Your Grand Island Town Board addressed that issue in 2002 when lifetime health benefits were eliminated, new employees began paying 20 percent of their health care costs and elected officials began paying 25 percent of their health care costs. Any possible savings does not factor in the 25 percent of medical care costs that elected officials pay if they use the benefit and the fact that not all council members use it. I do not use health care benefits from the town, and I also return the "bonus" offered to employees for not taking the health care plan. In my tenure as a council member I have returned over $17,000 to the town.
I believe that any possible savings would be offset entirely by additional costs associated with the utilization of workers to fulfill duties currently performed by the five-member Town Board. The downsizing would, in fact, increase the cost of government to Grand Island taxpayers.
I believe that a five member board gives the best representation for the citizens of Grand Island, something on which America was founded. Albany's "three men in a room" concept, with its dangerous concentration of power, is not working there. Why would it be a good idea to bring that to Grand Island? I believe that the $17 million town budget should not be controlled by two people, a majority with a three-member board. Two people should not be able to determine all hiring, labor contracts and other contractual work, policy regarding the use of property and supplies and services purchased by the town. Special interests with only a couple of successful board candidates could wrest control away from the people. What other group (church, sports, clubs, homeowners' associations) would ever consider putting three in charge so that two people could control all decisions?
I believe that representative government is the best government. Giving up representation for questionable, if any, savings is foolish.
I urge you to vote no on Sept. 23.
Councilwoman Mary Cooke
Don't concede representation to special interests
Downsizing is not in the best interest for the community of Grand Island.
I have had the distinct honor to represent the residents of Grand Island for the previous seven years.
During my term in office, I have not always made everyone happy. When I first ran I stated, and have committed to, not being influenced by special interest groups. I have stuck to that decision. I have listened, read and researched all major issues that have caused residents and neighbors concerns. I can honestly say, and can look anyone in the eye and tell them, that all the decisions have been for the betterment of the Town of Grand Island.
As I travel the Island and see the "Vote Yes" signs, I can pretty much tell the reason for the sign. It makes me upset when I think that people would vote to downsize as a way of "getting even" with the Town Board. If someone is that upset, they have the opportunity to vote out the present elected official and vote in the people they feel will listen to them and vote accordingly.
Please do not concede your representation to the special interest folks.
Without listing all the practical reasons not to downsize, as with all resident concerns, I would be more than willing to talk to you in person. I can be reached at home at 773-3967 or on my cell at 583-7969. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
Councilman Gary G. Roesch
No to downsizing
I have never written an article before, but after reading about Kevin Gaughan and his downsizing plan, I am forced to do so.
Our town government is run very well by our Town Council and has kept our tax rate to a minimum. The problem with our government is not with the town, but with the state and school system. If you doubt this, take a ride to Albany and see the waste of your money at the South Mall, which is where many of our state office buildings are located. These buildings are overspending at its finest. If you think our school system is doing its job, then ask a high school senior where 7/16-inches is on a ruler, what direction is north or how to add without using a calculator.
I have interviewed many prospective employees and most cannot do these simple tasks. Try asking a high school senior these questions, and when you write your school tax check ask yourself if you are getting your money's worth. Town government is a highly tuned machine compared to the state government and school system.
A few years ago, I saw town government in action and thought a councilperson's job would be great, good pay and few hours. As I looked further into this, I found I could get a job flipping burgers and make just as much without any hassles. To do the job properly, it takes 30 hours a week or more and has more upsetting meetings and phone calls than I can even imagine. We need five people on our council, if for no other reason than it is too easy for three people to get cozy as five people each have their own views and are much easier to contact than three members.
I doubt Kevin Gaughan is trying to make this change out of the goodness of his heart. I would like to see what long-term plan he has for himself and how a change in town government will help him -- only time will tell.
Our town government is the best deal we have: don't mess up a good thing. Vote no to downsizing.
Common sense voting
Being a Conservative, Republican businessman for the last 32 years, I went to the town forum at the Bible Presbyterian Church on Monday night to listen to both sides of the town downsizing discussion.
Everything that the Conservative Party, Republican Party and business community believe in is a smaller government and with less taxes. All the Town Board members seem to agree upon this belief, except for when it involves the Town of Grand Island.
Why, then, does the Town Board think that, if you downsize the board? Their claim is that "it would be easier to corrupt the board members because there would be fewer members to keep everyone honest." Hogwash. With 16 volunteer boards, and all the town departments, approximately 50 to 60 people at stage of any project are looking at and questioning every little detail to make sure everything is done to town code.
I truly believe that it would be impossible to corrupt any of these honest, hard-working public servants. I also believe that, yes, it would be little more work for the board members if the board were to be downsized. But, with the condition of the economy, just about every business has had to work with less people, and employees have to work longer hours just to make ends meet.
Yes, if you look at the tax savings in downsizing the board, it may not seem like $75,000 is a lot of money, but it is a lot of money to most people. If you are truly a Conservative, Republican, businessperson or retired person, I truly ask you to vote "yes" to downsizing, to save taxes and to help make a smaller, more efficient government to all levels.
Dan Drexelius, Owner, Double D Construction
GI government close to ideal
In reviewing the arguments for and against the downsizing proposal that will be voted on Sept. 23 it is clear there is one and only one benefit of this proposal. The individuals who are hired to supervise the vote will be paid. Otherwise there is no benefit at all.
The limits of a three-member board (supervisor and two council members) are severe.
Our Island is unique and our borders do not permit shared services. Our town has over time developed a rich consortium of citizens' committees and organizations. The four council members are ex-officio participants in these meetings. Each group sends information and concerns to the Town Board and town departments through the council member participants.
We would lose this essential ingredient of town life if the proposal fashioned by Kevin Gaughan is passed.
I signed the petition for this referendum. It has allowed a review of our town government. I am delighted that Grand Island's government is as close to ideal as we can reach.
Vote "no" on Sept. 23.
Joan Droit, Grand Island
Who will assist in community effort if GI reduces council size?
I am writing to express my objection to the downsizing of Grand Island elected officials. While some communities may have excessive legislative staff, Grand Island certainly does not.
I often wonder how our low-paid servants find the time to handle all the affairs they are involved in. Aside from the course of running the town government's many activities, I wonder if the people of Grand Island are aware of the numerous activities our leaders become involved in that never make front page news. For example, I have been working with Councilwoman Mary Cooke for over two years in a community project involving the Town of Grand Island Recreation Department, the Grand Island Board of Education and other organizations. Mrs. Cooke has spent numerous hours of her own time assisting in this effort. She has been available on her time off, nights and weekends to attend meetings to help direct the project. She has not asked for one cent from the town or the Board of Education to compensate her for her time or costs. Who will assist in this kind of community effort when the town has two fewer council people? Perhaps paid other staff will be necessary to cover the void. Other examples of assistance I have received from other council people are trash removal from neighbors' yards, drainage problems, code violations, tree and shrub removal and water meter problems. Again, who will assist when there are two fewer council people?
The amount of money that will be saved by the reduction of two council people will be less than $10 per property owner. Please think about what you will be losing to save $10. Please vote no!
Joseph F. Macaluso
Fewer board members would downsize representation
We are writing this letter, not as members of any group for or against downsizing the Grand Island Town Board, but as citizens who are concerned about the negative impact of this proposal.
We have worked with, and against, the Town Board on many matters, and have seen board members spend a great deal of time and effort in meetings, research and communications. To decrease the number of board members will decrease the quality and quantity of knowledge brought to the board. Fewer board members would also mean less opportunity for voter contact. These mean downsizing representation, at very little savings.
Admittedly, the current board votes in lock-step, and we certainly do not agree with all of their decisions. However, if diversity of opinions and votes is important, then a diversity of members is also. It is better to have more members, and more opinions, than fewer.
Downsizing the Town Board brings to mind two oft-repeated phrases: "Taxation without Representation," and "Three men in a room." Are these good for Grand Island? We think not.
We urge you to vote "No" on downsizing on Sept. 23.
David and Barbara Birt, Grand Island
Are we truly being represented if the board agrees every time?
Last week, Patricia Akinbami's letter to the editor in favor of downsizing the Town Board was in the Island Dispatch. In her letter, she quoted something I said in the Aug. 17 Dispatch. I wrote and Patricia quoted me as saying, "Every single vote the Town Board has had this year has been unanimous. There have been 14 board meetings and not a single dissenting vote." I would like to add that since that time I have reviewed the disposition of the Town Board meetings for 2008 and 2009 as published on the town's website. All of the Town Boards votes in 2008 and 2009 were unanimous approvals as well. The streak may in fact date back much farther, but those are the only years available on the website.
We hear the board members claiming our representation will suffer if the downsizing is approved, but the flip side to that is, if they all agree on everything every time, then are we truly being represented; and do we need five people to agree on everything, or is three enough? I, myself, am not sure how to vote on the downsizing referendum, but I believe residents should be familiar with board's voting history. This may in fact be more an argument to who is on the board rather than to how many are on the board, but it is something that residents should keep in mind. Studying the past unanimous "yes" votes shows that the board saying "no" to downsizing is the first time they have been able to say no. But, then again, they are all in agreement on it ... as usual.
Craig Eddy, Grand Island
Too many of WNY's young people are leaving area
Last January, I signed up on Kevin Gaughan's government reform website. I read his local government study, which reveals that Western New York has 439 elected officials -- more than 10 times the number of politicians than any comparably-sized community in America.
Then, along with a group of concerned citizens, I asked Gaughan to come to Grand Island to organize a petition drive so that we Islanders could decide whether to downsize town government. I did so for two reasons: my sons, Max and Nick.
Like all fathers, when they become adults, I want my sons to be able to live and work here, where their parents, grandparents and cousins live. But too many of our children have to leave Western New York for lack of jobs. Grand Island has lost 27 percent of our young people just since 2000.
The cause of these sad departures is high local property taxes -- we pay the fifth highest local taxes in the nation. And a contributing cause of these high taxes is our large number of politicians, for whom taxpayers pay their compensation and benefits.
Out of Erie County's 25 towns, our Town Board is the fifth highest paid. Several towns in Erie County have more than double the population of Grand Island, but their council members receive a smaller salary. So far, Gaughan's movement has resulted in voters adopting downsizing in five towns -- Orchard Park, Hamburg, West Seneca, Alden, and Evans -- reducing local taxes by almost a million dollars per year. If his movement succeeds in all 25 towns, we will eliminate 50 elected positions, saving every Erie County taxpayer more than $6.8 million per year, or $68 million every 10 years.
Grand Island's population has reminded fairly steady since 1980 -- no real growth or loss. But just since 2000, the town tax levy (the amount of taxes Grand Island collects from residents) has increased 57 percent, town employee benefits rose 142 percent, and the amount of sales taxes we pay that's passed onto Grand Island town government increased by 77 percent. Where are all those taxes going? Certainly not into our business district, which has far too many unused and abandoned parcels.
In these pages, politicians and political party chairmen have made arguments against downsizing and in favor of keeping the status quo. Their views are understandable because the more elected positions there are, the more influence party bosses possess. But these folks never ask the important question: At what cost to taxpayers? The answer is clear. If we don't at least start to dismantle our high concentrations of politicians, our children and grandchildren will never be able to experience the great Western New York life we all love.
Don Keller, Grand Island