Lack of transparency issues voiced to Lewiston Town Board
By Terry Duffy
A mishmash of topics - from water districts to solar panels, mulch, the EPA, the shuttle, cable TV broadcasts of Town Board government meetings, River Walk Phase 4 sidewalk installations and more - was heard Monday evening in Lewiston.
It was a Town Board work session that carried on for over two hours. Resident grumblings were plentiful: over board practices of letting out contracts to town-contracted firms vs. RFPs; cost impacts to residents in the upcoming water line replacement project; the delays in providing residents cable TV coverage of board sessions; and other transparency issues in light of Sunshine Week.
Quite a session for a cold, snowy night with not much on the agenda.
The session opened low-key, with two public hearings scheduled: the dissolution of 16 town water districts (the Town of Lewiston outside village and Tuscarora Reservation) into one townwide district, and all the particulars thereof; the other on extending a moratorium on ground-mounted solar panels and solar farm installations.
One resident - Paulette Glasgow of the Lewiston Taxpayers and Accountability Alliance - had a host of questions on the water district dissolution/consolidation plan.
Chief among her concerns was whether it was in the public interest. Questions included what of the town assets are in individual water districts, and if there is any cost impact to residents; what, of any, indebtedness in the multiple districts; how are residents affected with the $10 million project cost; is there any impact on town properties toward reassessments; and what of the town's actions with RFPs and no-bid contracts.
Noted by Alliance members was $1.3 million in engineering fees paid to Town of Lewiston Engineer Bob Lannon (who is also principal/vice president with the GHD firm), and also legal service costs to Brian Seaman of Seaman Norris LLP, formerly a town attorney who is handling this project for the town.
"How do you (explain) that taxpayers are getting the most cost-effective service" here? Glasgow asked.
Seaman clarified a number of issues in his comments.
In a nutshell, he said the town's earlier 16 water district structure was "needlessly complicated," with past district improvements having been overlaid upon others in past years, adding that Lewiston's multiple district setup was unique, developed over decades, and has proven to be cumbersome.
"No complete distinction existed," he said. "The whole purpose of this (single district) law is to have better management and operations. The aim is establish one single water district."
Seaman went on to say the project cost would not spur any reassessment of town properties; that all the assets of individual water districts (water lines, stations, connectors, etc.) would become the assets of a single townwide district; and the change overall would allow for a better streamlining of all water district projects.
The Town Board went on to approve the water district plan, with Seaman instructed to begin researching various funding areas, including grants, to address its cost impact to residents. No comments were offered with respect to the outside fees paid for outside engineering or legal services related to the project.
Next up was the public hearing on extending a moratorium to one year for solar panel installations and solar farms in the town. It saw no comments.
Town of Lewiston Attorney Ryan Parisi noted the issue of solar panels/farms on private properties has been a discussion item in the town for some time, and it was overdue for a permanent law to be enacted. Parisi said he would work further with the town building department and also examine how other neighboring communities are addressing the issue. He said he "aims to have a new law in place within a year."
Town Board members went on to approve the moratorium extension by a 4-0 vote. Councilman Al Bax was absent.
In other news:
•Glasgow and members of the Lewiston Taxpayers Alliance continued to question Town Board members and Town of Lewiston Attorney A. Joseph Catalano over the hold-ups on televising Town Board meetings via Lockport Community Television cable access.
Catalano and Councilman Bill Geiben explained the Town Board meeting broadcasts, long favored by Supervisor Steve Broderick and all members, have become a very drawn-out discussion item, due to various Public Education Grant funding criteria contained in a $9,200 grant agreement awarded by Time Warner Cable to the town. Among the stickler items was reportedly the purchase of the related broadcast equipment, the utilizing of students via qualified internships with local school districts or colleges, and creation of an actual curriculum to carry out the program with town oversight.
Catalano and Geiben said the town's Cable Commission has been working through the T/W PEG funding particulars listed earlier, but actual decisions involving a curriculum or a local education provider (Niagara County Community College was mentioned; so were Lewiston-Porter and Niagara-Wheatfield high schools) have yet to be finalized.
The matter was left as a tabled item, with Geiben, Catalano and the Cable Commission to address it further in discussion.
•Town Highway Superintendent Dave Trane informed the board there would be no mulch available this year for distribution to town residents.
"It's the ash borers," he said.
Trane said the town has been deluged with dead and diseased ash trees, with 95 percent of all ash trees in the area affected. Availing any mulch would only exacerbate the problem.
•Sara Capen, representing the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area's Discover Niagara Shuttle, visited and offered Town Board members an overview of the shuttle's inaugural year. She said the shuttle's year one operation was viewed as a success, with 33,530 riders using the service, and its popularity benefitting a host of area tourist and cultural destinations and local businesses.
For 2017, Capen said the shuttle would extend its service hours on Fridays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to midnight. Monday-Thursday hours will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Three new Niagara Falls stops (the Amtrak train station, Oakwood Cemetery and the Third Street business district) are being added; and Discover Niagara continues to seek outside funding from various government and private entities.
She said, at present, the Shuttle has a $60,000 funding gap for 2017. Capen asked for the board's support.
"The shuttle seeks to help the local economy," she said. "It's connecting with them."
Broderick voiced the town's support for the service, pointing to interests from Artpark to Sanborn, the Stella Conservancy and Old Fort Niagara that benefit.
The matter was left with town grantwriter Bernie Rotella instructed to work with Capen on pursuing additional outside funding resources to assist. Niagara River Greenway funding was mentioned as one such option.
•Geiben suggested the town needed to be more proactive in expressing its concerns to the federal government in the wake of threatened funding cuts to the EPA by the Trump administration. He said such cuts could impact area projects at the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site on Pletcher Road.
Recent LOOW site projects discussed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District have involved cleanup of a former TNT manufacturing facility, and a significant long-term cleanup plan involving the 10-acre Interim Waste Containment Site behind Lewiston-Porter, which houses World War II-era radioactive waste contamination from the Manhattan Project.
The matter was left with attorney Parisi to work with Bax, who serves as board liaison on environmental projects, in conveying the town's concerns both to the Army Corps and to Congressman Chris Collins.