By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Major cuts to consulting lines in this year’s budget may cause issues for the city in 2013.
Mayor Paul Dyster said $188,500 cut from consulting lines in various city departments through city council amendments could prevent work from being completed this year, could mean the city will miss out on grant opportunities and may even be held responsible for repaying grants it has already accepted.
“In whatever department you have jobs that need to get done that require expertise that city employees don’t possess,” Dyster said.
Dyster attempted to veto four of the six cuts made by council amendments during deliberations on the 2013 municipal budget. The move would restored $175,000 into the expenditure column of the budget but the vetoes were overturned in unanimous votes by the city council.
Of particular concern were cuts to consulting lines meant for the corporation counsel, engineering department and a grant writing consultant, Dyster said.
For Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson and the law department, Dyster said a $50,000 reduction in consulting funds means legal battles - like the city’s ongoing fight with Man O’ Trees Inc. over the Lewiston Road reconstruction project - could be left solely to attorneys working inside City Hall.
Attorney’s from the Hodgson Russ law firm have been representing the city on that case and Dyster noted that they were able to get a court injunction thrown out in September, allowing the city to hire Accadia Site Contracting Inc. to complete Lewiston Road work. The long stalled-road project reopened to two-way traffic in December.
Dyster said it is important for the city to be prepared to fight legal battles, adding that having the option of using an outside firm for big cases ensures that the city can better protect itself in the courtroom.
“Being prepared to vigorously protect our interests will cause all the various parties to respect those interests,” Dyster said.
In the engineering department, consultants are used when the area of expertise required for a particular project falls outside the abilities of the city’s engineering staff. The department contracts out environmental remediation work because paying for those services in a “piece-meal fashion” is cheaper than paying the salary and benefits of a full-time environmental engineer, Dyster said.
A city council amendment eliminated a $20,000 consulting line, meaning the engineering department has no funds available for consultants this year.
“Testing for asbestos, even if we are going to do something in house, we need to know if it’s going to be an issue,” Dyster said. “It makes for a complicated bid project if we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
The council also eliminated a $30,000 budget line set to pay a grant writing consultant, a position the city has had in previous years.
Dyster said hiring an outside consultant to write and maintain grants enables the city to pursue money at a discount by avoiding having to pay benefits to a dedicated, full-time staff member.
In addition to pursuing new funding opportunities for the city, grant writing consultants have reported back on grants that the city has already received. Failure to meet reporting obligations can result in the city being required to repay grant funds, Dyster said.
“In some cases, there are very severe penalties, including repayment of the grant, if certain conditions are not met,” Dyster said.
The city gets a lot of bang for its buck from consultants and the services that those budget lines provided will now need to be fulfilled by already stressed city departments, Dyster said.
“It seems as though we make very limited use of consultants for very specialized purposes,” he said.
Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian, who has been credited with reshaping the budget to avoid tax hikes while minimizing job cuts by some of his colleagues, said with a strained budget — caused in large part by the ongoing dispute over the 2002 gaming compact between the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York state — the council was forced to eliminate spending wherever possible.
Choolokian said he feels the departments are capable of picking up the slack in this tough financial situation.
“We want to do more in-house stuff,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in the employees of city hall.”
Choolokian said the council spoke with department heads to ask what they could do without before making decisions on where to make cuts.
“Right now, we’re going to have to tighten our belts, watch the consultant spending and figure this thing out,” he said.Mug of Dyster, Paul Paul Dyster Cuts are a concern