|NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS FOR ALL TOWNS, VILLAGES, AND CITIES
Village of Akron: Village Clerk Daniel Borchert was very accessible and willing to talk and answer all of my questions. When I requested a copy of the most recent Adopted Budget, Mr. Borchert offered to post it on the Village's website and did so later that day. He also explained portions of the Budget, helping me to navigate and understand it.
City of Lackawanna: Robert Marciniak, the City Comptroller, was very open and accessible over the telephone and sent me a copy of the City's Operating Budget very quickly after I requested it.
Town of Marilla: In a long conversation, Town Supervisor John Foss walked me through all of the information on the Town's elected officials and their staff members. When I called back to clarify some of my notes, Mr. Foss' secretary, Kim Parker, took time to go through the part-time staff members' salary schedule to confirm each staff member's hourly wage.
Town of Alden: Town Clerk, Dorothy Bycina, was helpful in answering most of my questions over the telephone. But when I requested healthcare benefit costs for elected officials and a copy of the Adopted Budget, she asked me to submit a request letter under the Freedom of Information Act. She also told me that the budget would come at a cost of $0.25 per page.
Village of North Collins: When Patrick Craig and I visited the Village of North Collins, we passed the Village Hall a few times because the address we had appeared to be the Fire Hall. We soon found out that the Village Hall was in the back of the Fire Hall building. Village Clerk, Kathleen Myers, told us that with the exception of two part-time employees, she herself was essentially the staff for the village and willingly handed us a copy of the budget.
Town of Evans: The town's budget, as well as specific salary schedule documents, were posted and accessible on the town's website. Each time I called the town, I spoke with Maureen Cournyea, a clerk in the Accounting Department, who was very helpful with most of the information. However, it was more difficult to determine some of the health care costs for the elected officials.
Village of Depew: On a visit to the Village of Depew, Patrick Craig and I were told that the information we sought (salary costs, healthcare and pension benefits) was personal information that this individual could not give us. We left and I later called and spoke with the Village Clerk Administrator, Robert Kuciewicz, who was very helpful in answering my questions. He also quickly sent me a copy of the Adopted Budget.
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Town of Tonawanda: In the Town of Tonawanda, all three elected town officials (Supervisor, Town Clerk, and Highway Superintendent) receive two paychecks, one for their official job, and another for "Sanitation Director," "Budget Office," or "Registrar/Stats Director" paying an additional $12,890 to $16,456 per year. I also learned that if a councilmember already gets health benefits from their spouse, they can "opt out" and the city writes them a check for almost $4,000. The individuals I spoke with explained that this is great because it saves the town the money it would have had to spend on health care benefits. Ed Mongold, the Treasurer for the Town of Tonawanda, gave me a copy of the official policy showing that by 2008 the average pension benefits would be down to 9.2% of employee salaries but they are currently at 10.7%.
City of Tonawanda: The City of Tonawanda seems to be using its money more efficiently. Its common councilmember makes only $7,000 per year and receive no health care benefits or pension contributions. This means that a councilmember in the Town of Tonawanda costs more than four times as much as the councilmember in the City of Tonawanda.
Town of Hamburg: In the Town of Hamburg, the Council makes only $18,500 per year for their weekly meetings. The hidden benefit, however, is the $10,500 in health benefits each councilmember gets for his entire family, plus pension benefits.
Town of Lancaster: In the Town of Lancaster, the town justices make $36,000 a year, plus $10,680 in healthcare benefits per person (the two of them each have family benefits) and pension benefits of around 3% annually. This would be a bargain if these justices worked full time, but according to my source in Lancaster, although they share "on call" time, they only come to the town court about once per week and continue to work in their law firms simultaneously.
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City of Buffalo: Of all the places I visited for this project, I expected City Hall to be the most difficult. Nothing symbolizes Western New York's oversized government more than the art deco masterpiece on the west side of Niagara Square. My concerns were not alleviated when I received the 570-page budget for the city. But my fears could not have been more misplaced. The people I met in City Hall genuinely wanted to improve the city and the region and to help a student with the same goals. In the budget office, a few individuals came over to me while I examined the budget to ask if I needed help and to point out areas where Buffalo had managed to reduce spending.
One gentleman then pulled me aside and offered to locate some data for me that was not part of the official budget but provided a break-down of exactly what I needed. After a week, he called and invited me down to his office, where he provided me with more information than I could have ever hoped to get. He also explained that one reason the pension system is so expensive is that New York State requires a set amount be contributed every year. If the pension fund's investments do well, extra money is placed in the fund. The extra money is not returned to the municipality. However, if it is a down year on Wall Street, the municipalities must make up the difference. To prevent being hit with a penalty, most municipalities over-contribute. Buffalo's contribution amounts to $3 million dollars a year.
Town of Clarence: Prior to this project I knew two things about Clarence: its Thruway rest-stop and that it is home to one of our three Representatives. The Town Hall is set in a park that appears to be a least a mile away from any major street or commercial center. Unlike in Buffalo, I had to purchase the budget at a cost of $6. This is not a large sum, but as a record of how the town spends the people's money, the budget should be free and accessible.
Although salary was fairly simple to determine, I had to almost pry information on benefits from a staff member in the payroll office. Instead of providing me with an outline of expenses, I had to ask about each elected official and each staff member individually. When I left, I could not understand why it was so much harder to get information in such a small town. Maybe it was because Buffalo with a population ten times the size of Clarence only had a budget about three times greater.
Village of Springville: Due to construction on 219, it was harder to get to Springville than to get information from them. A woman in the clerk's office was very friendly and helpful. She pointed out how the town clerk actually gets a higher salary than indicated because it is drawn from all parts of the budget, not just the general fund.
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Town of Colden: When we requested the budget information, the bookkeeper, Luella Timmel, said she had a lot more important stuff to do. She also said that she could give me the health care but not the pension data because it is personal information. I then emailed her the information template and she said she would fill in all she could. After being told that the Colden Town Supervisor would personally call me, I waited. A week went by and still no call. I then proceeded to file a FOIA request with the town. Another week went by, still no response. Kevin then came to the Colden town hall with us and requested the information personally. Luella was very cooperative at that point and we received all requested information.
Town of Boston: Kathy Selby, the bookkeeper, was helpful every step of the way. She even went as far as to do some of the calculations for us. Because of her help, Boston was by far the best experience.
Village of Alden: We collected all of the necessary information with only one phone call and one personal visit. As with some of the other towns, we needed to pay for a copy of the Village budget ($10).
Town of Grand Island: Grand Island was very willing to work with us but required a FOIA request, as a matter of procedure, for each time we requested information. Nevertheless, they were very prompt in responding to our requests. Diane Darmofalski, the assistant town clerk, and I became good friends.
Village of Gowanda: The staff was very helpful and they shared most of the information with me that I needed in one phone call.
Town of Collins: With the first phone call, Becky Jo Summers, the town clerk, refused to give me any of the information regarding benefits or pension, declaring that it was "personal information." I informed her I would be sending her a Freedom of Information Act Request Letter. I then returned and delivered the FOIA request to her personally. She said she had misunderstood my request and would call me once she had assembled the information. After this visit, she was extremely easy to work with and I received all of the information that I had requested.
Town of North Collins: One phone call did the trick for most of the information. However, I had a harder time getting the town's budeget. Since I had always wanted to take my family camping around the Southtowns, I decided that I would pack up everyone and go to North Collins to get the budget myself.
After following the Mapquest directions like a sailor with a sextant, I finally arrived in North Collins. When I showed up at the clerk's office, I found out that she didn't work that day. I then had to find the Town Hall, so I stopped at a gas station where the attendant showed me where he thought it was located, just a few blocks away. With my wife and children still waiting in the car, I walked to what turned out to be the Village of North Collins Hall. The woman at the desk told me that the town in fact had no town hall but she suggested that I walk over to the Supervisor's house, just a few more blocks away.
The wife of the Hon. Tom O'Boyle ushered me into their home, where their two little girls were playing in the front room. The Supervisor invited me into his office, which he said had basically served as the town hall for some time. He mentioned that he had been the town's Supervisor for 16 years.
He was very kind. After I requested the town's budget, he opened up a file drawer, pulled it out, and gave it to me. "Don't you need to make a copy?" I asked. "No, don't worry about it," he said. After thanking him and his wife, I walked back to my car and finally set off to fish in Cattaraugus Creek with my son.
Erie County: We went to the Erie County Clerk's Office and were directed to go to the Personnel Department. They asked for a FOIA request, which I delivered to them. I then received a letter in the mail stating that the information would be sent to me within 20 days.
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Village of Angola: Nic and I visited the Village of Angola on our second round of visits. The town hall is tiny. The office was in the same room as the space used for council meetings and the judicial hearings. The women in the town office were quite helpful and provided copies of the relevant pages of the budget, highlighting the salaries we were looking for. Although they were less willing to seek out information that was not readily available, Michelle Warren, the deputy clerk, was extremely helpful. She e-mailed me the information I was still missing and provided me with a hard copy of Angola's budget.
Town of Concord: I visited Concord on my own on Friday October 22nd. Even though it was a rainy day, I still noticed that the town seemed a little run down. The buildings were old and quite a few clearly needed a fresh coat of paint, a new roof, or new windows. The clerk's office in the town hall is tiny. The few people that came in while I was there all seemed to know each other and several men seemed to be getting hunting licenses. The bookkeeper invited me to her office, where we chatted about the weather, about the mushrooms growing where they never grew before, and how her husband was elk hunting in Idaho where the weather was beautiful. She had all of the information right on top of her desk. She patiently explained the pension system as well as the premium plan. In addition, she provided me with a spare copy of the budget from the clerk's office at no charge.
Town of Cheektowaga: Nic and I visited Cheektowaga on our first round of visits. The clerk's office was not helpful at all. They told us that they couldn't give us the budget because it was too big. They did, however, copy the Town Council minutes that listed the salaries for the elected officials and staff. We then met with more success in the Personnel Department. One staff member provided us with information on salaries and staff members. Based on the questions we were asking, she deduced that we were working on a cost of government/reform project and she shared a few insights about the government in Cheektowaga. She noted that all of the elected officials and their staff have been employed by the town government for 10 years and therefore no longer pay into the state pension system. She made it clear that she did not approve of the patronage in Cheektowaga and the way people took advantage of the jobs-once they get in, they never leave. She explained, "Someone's Uncle Lenny gets them in on a summer job when they are 16 and they just stay on." The budget suggests why. The salaries are fantastic and the officials and their staff pay nothing for healthcare-the town covers the entire cost of health benefits. She seemed to wholly agree with some type of reform, acknowledging that Cheektowaga was inefficient and that nothing ever happened without it getting political. However, she didn't think Cheektowaga was in quite as bad shape as the City of Buffalo.
She then referred us to Michelle Kaminski to get the data we wanted, who was indeed extremely forthcoming. Michelle was very happy to help students as she had done a similar project in college. In addition, she shared our surprise at the number of officials and staff members who have been employed for more than 10 years in Cheektowaga.
Town of Eden: Nic and I visited the Town of Eden during our second round of visits. We started in the clerk's office where the two deputy clerks were extremely sweet. They didn't have much of the information we were looking for, but they did copy the town minutes that listed the salaries for elected officials and their staff. In addition, Heather Ohmit, whose daughter I coached at Canisius College, took us upstairs to the Supervisor's secretary who had the information we needed. She offered to introduce us in order to "grease the wheels" so that the Secretary might be more willing to help us. Before we left the clerk's office, the first deputy clerk, figuring out that our research was likely comparative and probably reform-oriented, asked that we let her know the results of our research. They were very interested to hear how Eden matched up to some of the other towns and were pretty confident that they would compare favorably.
The secretary to the supervisor seemed quite busy, but she was very patient and looked up as much of the information as she could. She also gave us a copy of a worksheet listing how much the healthcare plans cost. The Supervisor then came out and chatted with us about the town. He is very proud of his town and everyone in the office was talking about the new Irish pub-style restaurant that had opened. The Supervisor joked with another man who had stopped by, expressing surprise that he was able to leave the new bar and come in to work. It was so nice to see that they enjoyed each other's company so much. We left a request for more specific pension information with the bookkeeper, who is new and still getting acquainted with the system. She was willing to help, but seemed a bit frazzled by our request. Overall, Eden was one of the most pleasant of our town visits. It seems like the ideal town to live and work in. The Town Hall is a place you would find an excuse to visit because the people are just that friendly.
Village of East Aurora: I visited East Aurora on Friday, September 15th. I spoke with Linda in the Village Hall and she was very helpful. She calculated the salaries and Village contributions for me on the spot. But they were a little confused about the budget. No one seemed to know who had it or whether it was online. After driving out to the library on a subsequent day only to find out that not even the library had a copy of it, the Village clerk emailed me a copy of it. Ironically, I noticed that the Town Hall for Aurora is literally a 100m walk from the Village of East Aurora Hall. They do share some services like the Justices and the Superintendent of Highways, but it baffles me as to what the difference is between the two municipalities. What does the Village do that the Town couldn't also do?
Erie County: I spoke with Greg Gatch in the Comptroller's Office. He was extremely friendly and helpful. When I asked for the budget, he seemed skeptical that I would want the entire 1,000-page document. He said that the office could make a copy of it eventually, but they would have to charge me and it would be pricey. Instead, he suggested checking it out online or at any of the libraries. He also identified the pages on which I could find the information I was looking for. As it turned out, the only library in Erie County that seems to have a copy of the County Budget is the Central Library downtown. Several libraries were quite confused about whether or not they had a copy and even whether or not they ever regularly received a copy.
Town of Newstead: Newstead was fantastic. They gave us all of the information on the spot, in addition to a free copy of their budget. We had to fill out a form to get a hard copy of the pension and health care benefits, but they responded with the information within a week and a half. The women in the clerk's office were very friendly and very efficient.
General Observations: In just about every town (except Cheektowaga), we would get very similar responses to our questions regarding staff. For example, when we asked if the town councilmembers had any staff or if the Supervisor had any staff other than the secretary, quite often the response was, "Oh no, we are a small town. We all help each other and make due with very few of us." They were each quite sure that they did not have too many staff members relative to the work of the municipality. The reality, however, might be quite different.
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Town visits by Peter Brown and Robert Quinn:
Town of Blasdell: Marie Falzone, the Town's Deputy Clerk, provided us with a bound copy of the 2006-2007 Adopted Budget and a bill for $7.50. After sifting through the budget information, we spoke with Marie once more on September 28 to confirm our findings. She was helpful and friendly both times and we are grateful for her assistance.
Town of Holland: We are indebted to the staff at the Holland Town Hall for their kindness and knowledge; much of our work would not have been possible without them. Sandra Smith, the Town Clerk, provided us with a copy of the 2006 Adopted Budget and directed us to Jill Zientek, the Town's bookkeeper. Jill provided us with the information we needed and took some of her valuable time to explain to us the complicated language of municipal budgets. It was a wonderful and informative experience.
Town of Aurora: Arriving in Aurora, we were struck by the beauty of the Town Hall, located on the old Roycroft campus. The town's employees were equally impressive. Martha Librock, the Town Clerk, provided us with highlighted pages of the 2006 Adopted Budget detailing the exact information we needed. We needed only to explain our project and she went as far as to provide the calculations for determining health care using the Town's budget.
Town of Sardinia: In Sardinia, we met Deborah Smith, a part-time Deputy Clerk who worked just one day a week. Upon our arrival, she was busy providing citizens with hunting licenses. She handed us a copy of the budget and sent us to a cluttered desk in the corner of the wood-paneled office. But we piqued her interest after we returned to ask for copies and for information about salaries and healthcare benefits. She then wished us luck and quickly went back to work.
Village of Farnham: Driving past the Village Hall, we were perhaps distracted by the announcement board congratulating the village's new parents. But neither of us took the diminutive building for municipality's headquarters and we were likely in the next town before we decided to turn back. We finally arrived at the firehouse-municipal hybrid, only to find that the employees had taken a lunch break and we had the building to ourselves. After lunch, we spoke with Village Clerk Judy Trask. Farnham was by far the smallest town we visited and Judy was able to answer our questions with only a small amount of research. She insisted that we would find the larger towns more fertile ground for our research but Judy's knowledge and perspective was invaluable in piecing together our picture of Erie County.
Town of Amherst: In our dealings with smaller towns and villages, Peter and I had become accustomed to the personal knowledge and assistance that was absent in our trip to the Amherst Town Hall. We first went to the Town Clerk's office, expecting to find that the Clerk would have the answers or at least be able to point us in the right direction. This was not the case. We found that the clerks had trouble figuring out how many employees worked just in their office and they then sent us down the hall to payroll. The Amherst Town Hall is located in an old schoolhouse and I could not shake the guilt of wandering the halls without a pass as we moved from office to office. Payroll informed us that we needed to file a FOIA request before they could provide us with any information at all and sent us on our way. Darlene Carol in the Purchasing Office was helpful and interested in our project but she, too, told us that we would have to file a FOIA request once she realized how much paper she would have to sift through to find the basic information we requested. After stopping in the Supervisor's office to talk with his two employees, it was clear that our only choice was to file the FOIAs and wait.
Town of Elma: The Elma Town Hall was a pristine new building set in a large, grassy field set apart from the small houses and gas stations surrounding it. After working my way down a hall of glass-enclosed offices, I arrived at the Town Supervisor's office. He was incredibly helpful, even going so far as to engage me in a discussion about the cost of Elma's elected government. He conceded that the money spent on elected officials was a lot, but he also asked rhetorically what jobs would be eliminated. I told him I didn't know but I would be back if the project yielded any answers.
Town of Wales: I traveled to the Town Hall at 12345 Big Tree Road just to confirm some information that had already been gathered by Meghan and Patrick. In the Town Hall I spoke with Sharon Marturt, the Town Clerk. She was very helpful and answered all of my questions, regardless of the amount of paper she had to dig through to find the information.
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