by Susan Mikula Campbell
The Town of Niagara received a good independent audit report Tuesday, but a bad report from its Belden Center residents impatient with delays in drainage and road repairs.
The Town Board approved a second application to the state Office of Homes and Community Renewal for a Community Development Block Grant to be used in Belden Center.
After the first application failed last year, an exit interview with grant officials provided some tips to have a better chance receiving the very competitive grant with a re-application, explained Nathan Taylor of Rotella Grant Management, the town's grant writer. It was decided to reduce the amount of the grant request to $600,000 and focus on stormwater drainage improvement along Rhode Island Avenue. Pictures were included to show the adverse conditions in the area.
Highway Superintendent Robert Herman said further work in Belden Center will be done in phases as funds become available. Once the drainage work is done, full road repair can begin.
About 10 residents attending the public hearing prior to the board meeting said they were tired of waiting for improvements and that something needs to be done immediately.
"We've always been the stepchild of the Town of Niagara," said Kathy Hall of Pretoria Street.
John Parfinski of Louisiana Avenue accused the town of treating Belden Center as its "shanty town."
"You guys have sucked tax money out of there for years," he said, pointing out that sewers are collapsing, manholes are falling in and the roads are a hazard not only for drivers, but children.
"You can't even drive down St. Paul without hitting potholes," said Jody Parfinski. "It needs attention now."
In the end, Supervisor Steve Richards promised to personally tour Belden Center roads with Herman this week.
Herman said that the town has the loan of the county's "hot box" to keep road repair material hot and he will assign a crew to at least temporarily patch bad areas until the drainage work is done. He noted that the town had sent members of his department to paving school and with trained staff capable of road repair, he now will be able to increase the amount of road work done each year without relying as much on other municipalities for assistance and subcontracting work.
Previously, the town only repaired about two roads per year. This year, he's hoping to have 12 done. He also cautioned that the town cannot focus just on Belden Center, but also must address poor road conditions in other areas.
In his independent audit report, Patrick D. Brown, CPA, of Brown & Company LLP, reported that the Town of Niagara once again received an unqualified audit opinion for the year ending Dec. 31, 2012, the highest opinion form for financial audits. That means the town is in compliance with accounting principles and reporting requirements.
"The town is in stable and good financial condition due to revenues exceeding budget by $408,229 and expenditures under budget by $11,705," he said. "Except for highway, all of the funds are just about where you want to have and maintain them; having adequate surplus fund balances to address unforeseen/emergency situations. The surpluses are reflective of prudent, conservative and realistic budget estimates of revenues and expenses."
However, Brown warned that the town faces ongoing challenges as revenues remain relatively stagnant and expenses rise.
As for debt, the town's philosophy of pay-as-you-go has resulted in a long-term bonded debt of $1.2 million, one of the lowest in the county, Brown said.
The town does not have a general town tax, just taxes for services. The operating budget is primarily covered by sales tax revenues, with additional funds from the New York Power Authority.
"General fund expenses need to be closely monitored and budgeted or they will force a general town tax," Brown said.
Just to replace the $650,000 of NYPA funds for 2012 with a property tax would mean an increase of about $5.07 per $1,000 assessed value in the combined homestead/non-homestead tax rate, he said.
Richards said that the town should look into preempting some of the sales tax revenues like cities do with restaurants, hotels and utilities. The town's businesses generate much of the sales tax and residents have to put up with the traffic, but the county distributes sales tax on a population basis, and the town's population is declining.
With the expansion of Fashion Outlets of Niagara mall already in the works, if the town had a better share of sales tax, similar to the cities' bed tax, "we'd have heated sidewalks," Richards said.