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Were courthouse construction change orders a chance to repay Dyster debt?

Niagara Falls Repoerter

February 15, 2011

By Frank Parlato Jr.

You decide. The Public Safety Building on Main Street in Niagara Falls -- better known as the new courthouse -- was planned under former mayor Vince Anello and constructed under Mayor Paul A. Dyster's administration. State Sen. George Maziarz described the courthouse as a "$22 million building, we paid $50 million for."

The whole saga stinks -- and it's not clear whether a further investigation is warranted. A Limited liability Corporation, called CLP3 LLC, which was a partnership between well-known Buffalo developer L.P. Ciminelli Corp. and Largo Capital of Amherst, headed by Gary Coscia, built the courthouse. The contract was for $44,600,000.

During construction, CLP3 put in for millions of dollars in "change orders" -- work that was not in the original contract. In fact, according to information revealed through a freedom of information request, there appear to be more than 200 change orders approved by Dyster's administration during the course of construction.

Some change orders increased the price, while others apparently downgraded materials and quality of construction, like changing railings from stainless steel to wood, and using inferior ceiling tiles.

When the work was done, the courthouse project cost more than $47,845,587. We wound up building an inferior building, while paying more than $3 million more than the contract price. How did it happen?

To recount a little history, Dyster fired former city engineer Bob Curtis on day one of his administration, just as the work on the courthouse began. Dyster did not hire another engineer -- Ali Marzban from Los Angeles -- until March 30, 2009, after the courthouse was finished.

It is a matter of record that Curtis had criticized Ciminelli/Largo, saying Niagara Falls would get hit hard with change orders if these particular builders were not carefully monitored. Curtis actually suggested taking the project away from Ciminelli and doing the courthouse as a public works project. Those comments by Curtis may have been the reason he was fired.

Some of the change orders Dyster granted to Ciminelli/Largo, apparently without monitoring price or the true necessity of the work, were: $24,914 for a plan to revise a storm pipe; $33,377 for a storage garage. A water valve: $2,282. A blueprint for a garage door: $24,000. Door modification: $1,244. Work to assist Verizon: $10,804. A ditch for underground cable: $13,881. Grading the parking lot: $40,649. Telephone outlets: $4,200. Outlet(s) in the jury box: $1,444. Circuits for phones: $2,684. More outlets: $8,894. "Unforeseen conditions": $110,581. Normal project changes: $25,228. And environmental cleanup: $2,564,035.

It was four months into construction -- after much of the work was completed -- before the Council even realized that Dyster had no controls in place to monitor Ciminelli and the flood of change orders the city was approving almost daily. Dyster hired LiRo Engineers Inc., of Buffalo, to be the city's project manager, at $14,600 per month. LiRo was touted as having no connection to the project's principals. However, LiRo's engineer, David Jaros, is widely known as a friend and supporter of Dyster. Curtis had made $6,000 per month as city engineer and would have watched Ciminelli as well as doing other duties, and held Ciminelli's feet to the fire. Now we were paying twice that much for part-time monitoring of Ciminelli, with uncertain results.

By the time LiRo finally made its first report, in July 2008, the price had jumped by millions. Reeds Construction Data's study of 25 American cities revealed that courthouses and jails, even in expensive-to-build places like New York City, where unions, bureaucracy and corruption through kickbacks and backdoor deals are a way of life, were built for under $275 per square foot. Our courthouse, based on public records, cost $415 per square foot.

Why did Dyster turn a blind eye to Ciminelli/Largo? Why didn't he hire a city engineer until the courthouse was finished? It is a fact that Ciminelli/Largo helped Dyster during his run for mayor during the summer of 2007. That may have been the reason. Dyster's opponent then was former councilman Lewis "Babe" Rotella. Rotella had, ironically, fought hard for Ciminelli/Largo to get the courthouse contract during the Anello administration. Ciminelli/Largo initially supported Rotella. During the primary, however, it appeared that Rotella was badly trailing Dyster in the polls.

The developers understood that construction would be done during the next mayor's term. A hostile mayor might scrutinize the project too closely. Change orders might not get approved. The developers quietly threw their support behind Dyster. They sent Dyster a nice check for his campaign.

Several sources say the developers also quietly arranged for additional donations to Dyster through other individuals. According to several sources, Dyster and campaign aides repeatedly and secretly met with Ciminelli/Largo representatives during the campaign.

And, according to sources, while pretending to support Rotella, a Largo representative was planted in Rotella's campaign headquarters to report directly or indirectly to the Dyster camp. She was later rewarded by being employed by Ciminelli/Largo.

This led to another revelation: While they could have started construction on the courthouse during the campaign summer of 2007, when Rotella would have gotten credit, it was alleged that Ciminelli/Largo delayed the groundbreaking until after the election as a favor to Dyster.

As the ugly accusation goes, Dyster returned the favor, with our money, by firing Curtis and allowing the developers to monitor their own work.

Either way, whether though incompetence or through a darker motive, Dyster was unusually lax on oversight. It appears the final result was that we added better than $3 million to the cost of the courthouse and cheapened the quality of it significantly.

Today, the new courthouse, in yellow brick, cocked at an angle not perpendicular to the street, with an odd, ugly misrepresentation of the old suspension bridge for an entrance way, stares back at us as an ugly reminder of our inept leadership, of greedy politicians and businessmen, and potential corruption.

You decide.

 

 

 
 
 
  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.