NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Some local politicians are dining on the taxpayer's dime.
While the City of Niagara Falls is facing serious budget problems, the fiscal woes apparently are not serious enough to come between the council members and a nice restaurant meal.
For the last few months, the same council members have taken an axe to the budget, slashing funding for cultural centers, tourism, and other volunteer organizations. Yet, at the very same time, they continued to treat themselves to nice dinners with city tax dollars.
"The taxpayers want to know where their money is going, and if you're not going to give back to organizations that are out there volunteering in the community, taxpayers want to know why you still think it's okay to spend money on dinners for yourself," said Mayor Paul Dyster, who opposed many of the the council's cuts.
Politicians using tax dollars to dine out is apparently a decades-old tradition in the Falls. Every other week, between meetings, council members typically dine at one of the region's most famous restaurants, the Como on Pine Avenue in Falls, as well as a few other places.
According to the Niagara Gazette, which first reported this story, the council racked up a tab of more than ($3,436 in just nine months last year.
Because of a city spending freeze, one council member, Kristen Grandinetti, said she decided to stop going to the dinners last year. Longtime councilman Robert Anderson did not, and said he didn't see a problem with the meals.
REPORTER: Wouldn't it have been the right thing to do to say, you know what, we should all pick up the tab for our individual meals instead of billing the taxpayers?
ANDERSON: I wasn't even thinking about a $10 meal for the taxpayers, and I give most of my money away. I wasn't thinking about a $10 meal when we were thinking about a $9 million deficit. Meals never came up. No one even brought it up.
REPORTER: Don't you think one of those organizations whose funding you cut might be a little upset about the fact that the council is still treating itself to dinner?
REPORTER: You cut money from them. Why not cut something like that out of the budget?
ANDERSON: But I'm working. What are they doing? They're not working. I'm working. I am working. If I'm out at 11 o'clock at night and I'm not in my nice warm cozy house watching Archie Bunker or the Golden Girls, I'm working. Ok, so you know what. What's the big deal with me having a cheeseburger? Or hot chocolate, especially in this weather. . . I've got plenty of freezers and refrigerators. I don't need anybody to feed me. I've done that for my entire life.
REPORTER: So, you're going to do away with these dinners?
ANDERSON: Hey, it's the name of the game. Get rid of them. I don't care.
Some have questioned whether the council members were also violating the open meetings during the dinners. The city's attorney, who also attended these dinners, told us he made sure no public business was discussed.
That means the council member were not working, but they still billed the city for the meals.