by Terry Duffy
There was good and some not-so-good news on the Town of Lewiston front this week.
Leading off, Supervisor Dennis Brochey and Town Board members heard what could best be called "cautionary news" regarding the town's finances Monday from Patrick Brown of Brown and Company, who reported on Lewiston's 2013 audit.
Then came the unsettling news for the Lewiston Police in the form of a petition to dissolve the department, offered by a local resident. That has gained significant traction and appears to be shaping into a voter referendum for this fall.
As they say, only in Lewiston.
Following on the differences in opinion heard in recent weeks over the town's finances from Brochey and town Finance Director Paul Kloosterman, who expressed concerns over budget shortfalls, came the rebuttals and assurances of stability from Town Councilman Ron Winkley and now departed member Mike Marra. Brown did his best to clear the air in his midyear report this week.
In a nutshell, he said Lewiston was not in that bad of shape financially, but that it needs to do a better job overall in managing its affairs from now on. "The 2013 year end results are mixed," said Brown, telling board members that the views expressed recently both by Brochey and Kloosterman and Winkley and Marra could both be considered as accurate. "The budget process and approach to setting services are a function of the supervisor and board and may result in differences of opinion," said Brown. "As of Dec. 31, 2013, the town was in stable and good financial condition, with all operating funds having adequate fund surpluses, except for highway and water pollution (accounts)."
Brown said that he understood the town's practices of using fund balances to offset its operations, but suggested it should not continue for 2014 and beyond. "There is some concern with (the) general fund townwide when projecting 2014's operating deficit, due to use of fund balance for operations the past several years," said Brown. "The town had rather large fund balance surpluses available for use in balancing their budgets, and it is understandable why fund reserves were used over the past couple of years as the alternative of expense/service reductions and/or town tax didn't seem appropriate when the town had these reserves to use."
But he stressed that fund reserve well is running dry and Lewiston needs to address this. Brown cited three areas - personnel and related employee benefits and the town's debt service (principal and interest) - saying they increased 7.2 percent, 14.5 percent and 11 percent respectively in 2013 and collectively eat up 51 percent of the budget. He cautioned that in their current state, personnel and benefits would continue to rise and suggested these areas as well as debt service should be re-examined.
Brown advised a leaner, smarter approach for Lewiston when it comes to planning its budgets down the road, suggesting only needed spending, and cutting costs and frills in its departments. "The 2015 budget will be challenging as fund balances for (the) general fund are pretty much used up, revenues are pretty stagnant/fixed and dependent on sales tax and expenses rise with many contractual items and debt service. The board will need to closely analyze expenses for all departments, especially employee benefits/personnel costs ... as the town will need to comply with the state property tax cap," he said in closing.
Brown's end remarks on personnel costs were, if nothing else, strangely coincidental to those heard earlier in the session by resident Ron Craft in community comments over the Lewiston Police Department, where he argued for its dissolution to save costs.
"I see you're doing finances tonight," said Craft. "I'll be honest with you, I'm collecting signatures (to dissolve Lewiston Police) to go together with the sheriff's department. I got 240 (so far) ... Take a look who you're hiring. I got 240 signatures; I intend to get them on a referendum. Out of the 240, I had 10 people not want to sign.
"I'm being above the board here ... it's nothing personal, it's dollars and cents."
No responses were to come that night from Brochey and the board members, but Lewiston Police Chief Chris Salada had plenty to say about it this week.
"I don't know why he is doing it; obliviously he has an agenda," said Salada. "I'm not sure what that it is. He says he is trying to save the town money by cutting the police department. He also says he's for bringing more people into the town (greater activity). How do you do that and cut police?"
Salada recalled the earlier discussions on this issue when the Village of Lewiston approached the Niagara County Sheriff's Office to present a cost comparison/services analysis when it was addressing Lewiston Police costs. Those discussions on a possible takeover went nowhere, when opposition flared at Village Board meetings and throughout Lewiston at the mere consideration of such a plan. "The sheriff has never offered to take us over," said Salada.
He also noted that this week on the LPD Facebook page, Sheriff James Voutour in response to the petition has come out in full support for maintaining and continuing the Lewiston Police Department. "We work very well together," Salada said.
Salada added he's not heard anything from the Lewiston business community in response to Craft's plan thus far. "Craft said he had a certain number of signatures. ... The question is, what is he telling these people.
"It's my understanding he is comparing apples to oranges ... by comparing the town, the village of Lewiston to Youngstown, to Wheatfield ..."
Salada said that Lewiston's needs are far, far different than those communities mentioned. He said LPD's 19 officers (10 full time and nine part time) cover 64 square miles. "Lewiston is so unique in this county ... any county ... We got, besides the Power Authority, we got St. Mary's Hospital, Our Lady of Peace, we got Modern Disposal, we got 12 schools, we got the Tuscarora Nation, the bridge, the border, we got so many amenities here we got to keep an eye on. And then controlling Artpark, all our festivals. There's so much we offer."
He related that in addition to law enforcement, LPD duties include road patrols, K-9 patrols, a whole range of community services, commercial truck enforcement, plus working in assorted U.S. Customs and Homeland Security areas. He noted that LPD has responded to 5,880 calls thus far this year, and made 304 arrests, including 51 DWIs.
And he spoke of the potential impact to Lewiston officers, all of whom are town residents. "This is their bread and butter. They're part of this community. And they're protecting it."
As of this writing, Craft's petition was reported to have amassed in excess of 300 signatures, many of them being from Sanborn, according to Town Hall sources. A petition is only required to have 275 signatures for referendum, so the likelihood of it being an item in this fall's elections appears strong.