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Dyster fumbles FEMA ball as Cayuga pays unnecessary flood insurance

Niagara Falls Repoerter

October 27, 2009

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Truth never dreams.

For example, Vince Sandonato, running for the Niagara County Legislature in the Fifth District, makes this point: Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster -- perhaps busy dreaming -- failed to appeal the new flood plain designations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Consequently, many -- perhaps all -- Cayuga Island homes, and homes along Cayuga Creek might be paying flood insurance needlessly.

"Something could have been done," Sandonato said, "if (Dyster) had met the deadline to challenge the flood plain map!

"Wheatfield, Lockport, Tonawanda and Buffalo challenged FEMA and succeeded."

Sandonato was not dreaming this up.

Dyster, in fact, did not oppose flood plain elevations, allowing FEMA to define for Niagara Falls who's in the flood plain.

Here are the facts: Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 to "help" property owners protect themselves from catastrophic floods. Congress mandated that banks and mortgage lenders require borrowers to purchase flood insurance for properties located in "high risk flood areas." Flood insurance costs $500 to $1,500 per year.

Generally speaking, areas FEMA say have a 1 percent chance of flooding annually are designated in the flood plain. Designation might add $30,000 to insurance costs of a home over a 30-year mortgage. Ironically, only one in four houses might collect on flood insurance during that time.

This is big business for insurance companies like AIG, All State and TFIA. Naturally, they want to see neighborhoods with little risk of flooding placed on flood plain maps.

The criteria for flood plain designation are mainly proximity to water and elevation. The difference is sometimes inches.

Recently, FEMA began employing airplanes using infrared cameras to determine elevation in order to create more accurate flood plain maps. Flying over houses, FEMA admits, is not as accurate as doing house-by-house surveying, but that kind of accuracy would be "exorbitantly expensive," officials say.

The new flood plain maps, like the old ones, are inaccurate.

Imagine the calamity for some homeowner sitting quietly, perhaps at home, and someone is flying overhead with an infrared camera measuring elevation a few inches inaccurately, which will cost him $30,000 over the life of his mortgage.

In Buffalo, Councilman Mickey Kearns got 2,400 Cazenovia Creek home owners off the flood plain. Armed with a comprehensive survey, Kearns challenged FEMA, which took these homes off the flood plain map.

Supervisors Marc Smith (Lockport) and Tim Demler (Wheatfield) hired Wendel Duchscherer Engineering to produce "ground-level elevation maps." In both towns, a large percentage of FEMA's aerial measurements were proven inaccurate. Homes were removed from the maps.

Dyster, too, hired Wendel Duchscherer -- but to plan a canoe launch at Jayne Park. And a canoe launch on 87th and Cayuga Drive. And draw plans for a "floating fishing platform" at Century Club Park. And plan the Rainbow traffic circle sculpture, which will cost taxpayers $460,000.

Wendel will make studies for a $40 million train station that, if built, will attract few riders. Smart cities spend money on airports and roads, which is how most people enter a city.

And Wendel will probably study Dyster's proposed $100 million "dream," the Niagara Experience Center, a "virtual" Niagara Falls experience to compete a few hundred feet from the real one.

As Dyster engaged Wendel to design canoe launches on Cayuga Island, as planes flew overhead, designating homes on flood plain maps, Demler engaged Wendel to -- it's so unglamorous, you'll be embarrassed when you hear it (no, it was not to do a study for a sculpture of Harriet Tubman, who might have once looked at a tree in Niagara) -- Demler hired Wendel to do "surface mapping."

The result was, in Wheatfield, of 907 homes added to the flood plain list, 757 were removed.

Eschewing canoe launches and virtual Niagara Falls experiences, Demler installed six new drain outflows, so water will drain faster in the Bergholz area, and FEMA might take those properties off the flood maps, too.

Dyster, meanwhile, is dreaming of promoting Harriet Tubman as having a Niagara Falls connection.

Ironic: The very week bureaucrats from the National Trust came to inspect Dyster's planned "dream" Underground Railroad Museum and possibly give the city money based in part on "Tubman was here," a well-researched article by Mike Hudson appeared in the Niagara Falls Reporter that showed the best you can say truthfully is "Tubman might have been here" -- maybe for a day.

Curiously, copies of the Reporter suddenly disappeared from the rack at City Hall just moments before officials came to take the Tubman-was-here tour.

Nevertheless, Dyster failed to appeal flood plain maps.

Not that he had no warning. In May, Councilman Sam Fruscione recommended he "take up the cause of homeowners adversely impacted by new federal flood plain maps."

The planning department, with its satellite-generated mapping program, could have played a role. The other team member needed was the city engineer.

But this city has no engineer.

The story behind that shows a side of Dyster that those who prefer to believe him a dreamy idealist may not care to read.

City Engineer Bob Curtis was fired when Dyster took office in January 2008. An ambitious new administration came to City Hall and immediately removed the engineer.

The decision to fire Curtis was made in 2007, during the mayoral primary, before Dyster was elected. Curtis was on record then saying the city's new courthouse project was too costly. He butted heads with courthouse developer Ciminelli Construction, saying he would hold Ciminelli's feet to the fire -- especially when it came to escalations in price through "change orders."

Now I will leave the reader to judge for himself.

Dyster received support -- especially behind the scenes -- from Ciminelli.

The story should be told in its gripping intensity. It includes a rather stunning betrayal of mayoral candidate Babe Rotella -- who had fought former mayor Vince Anello tooth and nail to get Ciminelli the courthouse project in the first place. It was politics and business, they said. But when polls showed Dyster likely to trounce Rotella, Ciminelli switched from Rotella to Dyster.

The deal, kept secret -- although Rotella found out - was, sources say, go easy on the courthouse, and I do mean easy, and in return Ciminelli would give Dyster plenty of support of all kinds, in many ways, now and in the future.

One more thing: Curtis had to go.

Curtis went on day one of Dyster's administration.

Just as ground was broken for the courthouse.

And no one was hired to take his place.

Then, with no engineer watching, Ciminelli billed taxpayers millions in overruns.

Seven months passed before the Council complained. Dyster, the fox, then hired his friend -- Buffalo's David Jaros, of LiRo Engineering -- to watch the hen/courthouse.

LiRo was paid $168,000 a year to "supervise" the courthouse. Curtis' salary, which would have included that and more, was $68,000.

Under LiRo's watch, courthouse costs escalated from $46 million to $50 million plus.

Dyster hired LiRo for additional consulting (a bizarre $50,000 open-ended services agreement without specifying what work they were doing), and hired LiRo to consult on flaws in the courthouse that LiRo approved in the first place.

It will cost the city $10,000 to redo the drains in the jail cells. $40,000 was set aside in the 2010 police budget for "upgrades" for a Ciminelli-built firing range that was supposed to be "state of the art."

In any event, with Curtis gone, it was left to City Planner Tom DeSantis and Dyster to do unglamorous governance like challenge flood plain maps.

Dyster might have been too busy. He:

  • Gave a grant of $10,000 for City Democratic Chairman Mike Lewis.
  • Gave his largest campaign contributor, James Glynn, a monopoly on the West Mall, eliminating retail competition around Glynn's strip mall.
  • Helped insure Glynn's Comfort Inn received a tax abatement package, while fighting to prevent three competing hotels from getting similar incentives.
  • Supported $6 million in grant money for Buffalo friend Clint Brown to rehabilitate the abandoned junior high school.
  • Supported grant money for the old public safety building, moved from the demolition list to the "let's rehab" list as Dyster's friends got involved.
  • Planned fanciful sculptures and canoe launches.
  • Defunded a federal allotment for paving Buffalo Avenue, preferring to leave the street full of potholes, diverting the money to fund plans (plans only) for a bizarre "historic" and "intermodal" train station with an Underground Railroad museum. The "initial" planning work (for friends of Dyster) "shouldn't exceed $5,176,240."
  • Hired Underground Railroad museum expert Kevin Cottrell for $75,000 per year, though the museum, if built, is at least four years away.
  • Froze downtown development -- except for Glynn -- so that nothing stands in the way of lucrative planning contracts for friends of Dyster for his dream Niagara Experience Center.
  • Set aside $500,000 for "casino lawsuit" to have lawyer friends defend, if necessary, the ultra-rich, tax-free foreign nation Seneca from U.S. citizens who might sue for taxation equality.
  • Tried to shut down Glynn competitor One Niagara (I own it), one of few new downtown developments, and tried to put 200 people out of work, saying the site plan was rescinded because there were not enough shrubs planted.
  • Defended lawsuit by One Niagara and lost.
  • Hired people from out of town (only) for all top positions at City Hall. Before Dyster, department heads earned $57,000 - $68,000. Now, the city administrator (from Atlanta) gets $110,000. The economic development director (Toledo), $100,000. Corporation counsel (Buffalo), $93,000. An unlicensed engineer (Iran), $90,000. Bizarrely, this mayor believes people who never lived in Niagara Falls are best to manage the city.
  • Placed three longtime inspectors on leave, denying them a fundamental American right -- innocent until proven guilty -- while trebling the costs of inspections for taxpayers.
  • Spent $100,000 promoting "free" concerts, which had such poor attendance that taxpayers paid nearly $100 per attendee.
  • Raised taxes to fund all these dreams.

Fanciful train stations, imaginary experience centers, and exclusively helping his friends, over paving streets, flood plain relief and providing all citizens with equal, honest services of government. This is the man we elected.

No. Truth never dreams.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.