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Curbing a spendthrift Mayor

Niagara Falls Repoerter

April 03, 2012

From the publisher, Frank Parlato Jr.

So now the city of Niagara Falls is out of money, because they just figured out that the Seneca casino money hasn't come in for two years.

Pretty smart.

When the spending of casino money is fully revealed and evaluated, it will be found perhaps that the vast majority of it went to businesses and individuals who contributed to Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster's re-election efforts.

Meanwhile. the Seneca don't pay and continue to get rich.

But who is to blame?

It is not hard to make the argument that Dyster spent casino money like a drunken sailor.

But it was not only casino money.

The man is a spendthrift.

Indeed, if you want to understand why the city is broke, look no further than the way Dyster has upped salaries at City Hall. Before Dyster became mayor, department heads were paid between $57,000 and $71,000.

Now they range from $85,000 to $120,000.

City administrator, Donna Owens gets $110,000. It used to be $60,000, when Bill Bradberry was Mayor Vince Anello's city administrator.

Dyster's Corporation Counsel, Craig H. Johnson, last year was paid $95,072 -- $26,875 more than Anello's counsel.

City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka gets $96,000. It was $68,000 when Bob Curtis was Anello's engineer.

City Controller Maria Brown was making $71,000 under Anello. She now makes $85,302 thanks to Dyster's generosity.

Even Brown's assistant, Sandy Peploe, made $88,525 last year, including nearly $25,000 in overtime, bonuses and stipends.

Why is a bookkeeper getting so much overtime? Why does she get a stipend to work with police and fire planning grants when it is part of her job?

Maybe because Dyster looks for ways to give his favorites money at taxpayer expense. In fact, he got state officials to transfer Kevin E. Cottrell, a State Parks grants specialist, to City Hall to develop an Underground Railroad exhibit.

State Parks officials offered to give the city the entire cost of Cottrell's salary and benefits when he worked for the state. But Dyster decided to up Cottrell's salary from $47,500 to $75,000, and got the generous City Council to agree to contribute $47,000 per year to cover the increase with benefits.

After all, it is only taxpayer money.

Police Chief John Chella reportedly was making $85,800. But, unknown to the public, he, a department head and supposedly exempt from overtime, actually got overtime and stipends earning him $121,874. This was done, as has been openly admitted, to help Chella secure a larger pension at taxpayer expense.

Acting Code Enforcement head Dennis Virtuoso replaced longtime department head Guy Bax.

Bax was making $65,000. Virtuoso made $95,075 last year. Why the $30,000 difference?

Thanks to a special arrangement with Dyster, Virtuoso was allowed to remain as a more or less permanent "acting" department head, who can thereby assign himself as much overtime as he likes, with only himself to monitor the need for his overtime.

And he did to the tune of $13,875 last year, not to mention an $8,000 bonus for being acting department head.

Ruby Pulliam was a full-time employee a few weeks ago, heading the EEO Department at $60,000 per year -- a new job Dyster created.

She is still a full-time employee, although with added duties, as Dyster merged the EEO and Human Resources departments -- and put her in charge of both.

The generous Dyster handed her $25,000 more of taxpayer money. Her new salary is $85,000.

But it is not just salaries where Dyster is a spendthrift.

Look at some of the other ways he brought the city to near-bankruptcy.

Holiday Market

A $225,000 casino investment was made for ramshackle booths, makeshift tents, a mini-Christmas tree and an undersized skating rink -- and no crowds whatsoever.

Buffalo law firms

More than a dozen Buffalo lawyers contributed to Dyster, among them Dan Oliverio, top attorney for Hudgson Russ of Buffalo, who in turn got hundreds of thousands in legal work from the city.

With four lawyers on staff and legal consultants galore, the legal department may soon cost taxpayers more than $1 million per year. And all of this for a city of 50,000 people.

Train station

At a minimum, $2.6 million is to be invested, plus an estimated $1 million-plus in operating costs every year for what promises to be a train station that, based on estimates of City Planner Thomas DeSantis, will serve about 130 people coming and going per day (65 each way).

Understand the concept: About 47,450 riders are estimated a year. The maintenance and upkeep for the city is estimated to exceed $1 million. If you divide $1 million by 47,450 riders, it will cost taxpayers $21.07 for everyone who rides the train -- more than the cost of train tickets in many instances.

Underground Railroad museum

At about 1,000 square feet or so, the Underground Railroad so-called "museum" is actually nothing more than a small exhibit -- the total square footage being about as large as many people's living room, dining room and kitchen combined.

Dyster hired Cottrell as a full-time employee to oversee it. With benefits, Cottrell gets $118,903, although a portion of this is paid by state taxpayers.

Dyster also gave him $350,000 of casino money to play with.

Why do we need a full-time employee at a base pay of $74,800 per year to oversee a small exhibit that is not even open? What does Cottrell do all day?

How many years of planning are required to design and implement a 1,000-square-foot exhibit?

Consultants to study anything and everything

Even putting in a streetlight requires a study that costs almost as much as the streetlight itself. Last year Dyster did an extensive study on outdoor storefronts that actually cost more than the storefronts to build. Later he decided he did not want storefronts.

Why do the studies always wind up in the hands of those who contribute to Dyster?

Urban Engineers of New York got lucrative work at the city's Rainbow ramp.

Clinton Brown got a nice consulting check for making the mayor's own street a historic district.

Mark Storch of Buffalo's Foit-Albert donated $3,600 to Dyster -- and got his company $535,412 to study 10th Street, $1.2 million to draw up plans for fuel-dispensing facilities, and $266,464 to design improvements for handicap access at various facilities. Clough Harbour and Associates of Buffalo donated $1,250. Dyster got them work last fall.

LiRo Engineering got more than $450,000 after Dyster fired in succession city engineers Bob Curtis, Ali Marzban and Tom Radomski. In fact, during his first term, the city was without an engineer for longer than with one -- happily for LiRo and other outside engineering firms.

Hard Rock concert series

More than $600,000 was spent on concerts of has-been artists, where Hard Rock makes all the concession money and the city pays all the expenses.

The Zoom program

A blitz of certain neighborhoods where selective enforcement reigns supreme and costs hundreds of thousands in casino cash.

Meantime, as the city is broke, and the Council is stripping him of the right to spend money, here are some of Dyster's comments from his 2012 State of the City with regard to city finances:

"Independent audits show that we've ended each year of my administration with a surplus. With money in the bank the city is prepared for emergency shortfalls. Less than a decade ago city officials were talking openly about bankruptcy and handing things over to a control board. We've shown that common sense, cooperation and good financial decisions are all we need. No one is talking about a control board now."

Less than 12 days after that speech came the frantic talk about a financial meltdown and the possibility that, if he is not stopped, a control board will be inevitable.

What is going on with the city's finances?

"Respect for the taxpayers is a hallmark of my administration," Dyster said.

"We've worked hard to re-engineer government to find millions of dollars in savings. Through this hard work and sound financial planning, our tax levy has grown on average by less than just one-half of 1 percent each year for the past four years -- well below the rate of inflation.

"That kind of sound financial management speaks volumes to the business community. Investors now see less risk and more reward in doing business here."

Meantime, the Council -- which aided and abetted Dyster in his spendthrift ways -- has finally spoken of taking his ability to spend from him.

"We have no choice but to take the power away from him," Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said of the mayor, "We have no money at all and we have to take control of spending."

Dyster revealed how much he is in the dark when he told the Niagara Gazette last week that "no one anticipated the city would go two years without receiving any of the casino funds," the loss of which has "suddenly" caused the city to teeter on the verge of financial collapse.

"This is the most unpredictable of circumstances," Dyster said.

When did it start to become unpredictable?

After two years?

It would seem to me that after one year, someone would start to imagine that this might go on for a long, long time.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.