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Lack of city engineer may be Dyster design

Niagara Falls Repoerter

May 31, 2011

From the publisher Frank Parlato Jr.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster is now in his fourth and probably last year in office.

For most of that time, there has been no city engineer.

Dyster had none from Jan. 1, 2008, when he first took office, until March 30, 2009, when he hired the ill-fated, unlicensed Ali Marzban from Los Angeles.

None again, after he fired Marzban four months later, until January 2010, when he hired Tom Radomski. Last week he fired Radomski.

In three and a half years in office, Dyster has had a licensed city engineer for one year and five months.

A city engineer is important to a city. He designs and approves projects and is the city's watchdog to make sure contractors do the job they were hired to do.

He must insure that contractors do not cheat taxpayers through the increasingly common practice of escalating prices on public jobs through unwarranted change orders.

Here's how the scam works: A contractor knows the nuances of a job better than anybody, except perhaps a competent city engineer who has designed the project and wrote its specifications.

A clever contractor knows how to come in at a lower price to win the bid, knowing certain specifications might be changed to raise the price after he wins the bid.

Sometimes contractors deliberately bid lower, knowing that with a friendly (corrupt) administration they can make their profit through change orders.

If the city engineer is honest and competent, he will approve only valid change orders and make sure these are done at a fair price.

Almost every Dyster administration project has been monitored by outside engineers and plagued with change orders. Curiously, both contractors and outside engineers -- almost to a man -- have contributed to Dyster's campaign.

Dyster fired Radomski, he said, because he lives in Lewiston, and therefore was in violation of the city's residency ordinance. A number of Dyster's department heads apparently live outside the city. Dyster does not appear to be taking action against any of them.

Most of Dyster's top paid people were hired from out of town: Donna Owens, Atlanta; Craig Johnson, Buffalo; Ali Marzban, Los Angeles; Roger Melchior, St. Petersburg; Peter Kay, Toledo.

A simple Internet search of Intelius and the White Pages shows several department heads list their home addresses outside the city: Dean Spring, Director of Purchasing, Lewiston; Carol Antonucci, City Clerk, Wheatfield. Even the Director of Community Development, Robert Antonucci, is listed as having his address outside the community -- in Lewiston.

Technically, City Administrator Donna Owens of Atlanta and City Attorney Craig Johnson of Buffalo temporarily rent here, but never invested in the city. These two outsiders fired Radomski --who, at least, bought a home in Niagara Falls, but apparently went to his other home in Lewiston to sleep at night.

Had Radomski not left the job peacefully, the city's police chief, who lives in Buffalo, would have arrested him.

We can perhaps assume the city's Human Resource Department, headed by director Joyce Serianni, who, according to Internet listings, lives in the Town of Niagara, and her assistant Roberta Sitzman, who lives in Alden, gave Radomski an exit interview on his being fired for not living in the city.

Radomski replaced former city engineer Ali Marzban, from Los Angeles. Marzban was fired in August of 2009 for not having an engineering license, something that this newspaper brought to the attention of the public.

Now, Dyster, at the end of his term, suddenly cares about residency.

Still, with Radomski gone, it is convenient. Dyster can hire his campaign contributors at LiRo Engineers of Buffalo and other outside consultants.

This week, Dyster asked the Council for $50,000 of taxpayer money to hire unnamed engineering "consultants" to do the work of the city engineer. It is expected most of that money and more will go to LiRo.

Indeed, sources say, the real reason Radomski was fired was to help LiRo.

It is commonly spoken of at City Hall -- to the point that it is spoken in every corridor -- that Radomski and Dyster butted heads repeatedly over getting LiRo checks for a spate of (potentially unwarranted) change orders on various projects.

LiRo received around $400,000 in outside engineering work.

For instance, LiRo received $28,000 for the 11th Street basketball courts design. The $28,000 was not for building the courts -- which consist of pavement, two 10-foot poles and two hoops -- but simply the design.

In 2009, after Marzban was fired, the mayor sought $50,000 from the Council for LiRo. When asked what the $50,000 was for, Dyster said, "I want to get them the money first, then I will pick from a price list what they will do."

Dyster hired LiRo to consult on flaws in the courthouse that LiRo approved in the first place.

Dyster got the Council to approve $200,000 for the design and construction of vendor booths in the Old Falls walkway. He hired LiRo to draw up plans.

After the plans were complete, the Dyster administration told the Council the city is considering holding off on building the storefronts. LiRo will charge perhaps in excess of $100,000 to design plans for something that may not be built.

Indeed, Dyster's first foray into change order heaven was with LiRo.

The city borrowed $45 million to build the public safety building on Main Street, better known as the courthouse.

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, had the contract for $44.6 million.

The city engineer, under Mayor Vince Anello, was Robert Curtis. Curtis had monitored the entire contractual process with CLP3, LLC and was intimately aware of every specification and nuance of the deal.

Curtis frequently had criticized Ciminelli/Coscia, saying that Niagara Falls would get hit hard with change orders if these particular builders were not carefully monitored.

Dyster fired Curtis on the day he took office. No transition, no guidance on the biggest project the city had undertaken in years.

Actually, the decision to fire Curtis may have been made in 2007, during the mayoral primary, before Dyster was elected.

When polls showed Dyster likely to defeat Lewis "Babe" Rotella, Ciminelli and Coscia apparently switched their support from Rotella to Dyster.

It was Rotella who had fought to get Coscia and Ciminelli the courthouse contract in the first place. But the developers understood that construction would be done during the next mayor's term. A hostile mayor might scrutinize the project too closely. The developers sent Dyster a nice check for his campaign.

Several sources say, although Coscia denies it, that the developers quietly arranged for additional donations and covert help to Dyster through other individuals or in cash.

If true, the quid pro quo was, as sources say, go easy on the courthouse, and in return, Ciminelli and Coscia 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.

An ambitious new administration came to City Hall and immediately removed the engineer.

With Curtis gone, CLP3 put in for millions of dollars in "change orders" -- work that was not in the original contract.

According to information revealed through a Freedom of Information request, there appear to be more than 200 change orders during the course of construction.

Four months into construction, Dyster found a way to please another campaign contributor. Dyster hired LiRo Engineering to be the city's project manager overseeing the courthouse at $14,000 per month.

All told, LiRo was paid $358,000 to "supervise" the courthouse, continuing to get $14,000 monthly checks long after the courthouse was finished.

Curtis' salary, which would have included monitoring the courthouse and other duties, would have been $6,000 per month.

It was seven months into construction before LiRo made its first report: By July, the price was up to $47.5 million. LiRo told the Council that Ciminelli/Coscia would keep the price from rising too much by change orders that would downgrade materials, like changing the railings from stainless steel to wood and using inferior ceiling tiles.

The price continued to go up, as the quality went down.

Dyster campaign contributor Leonard DePrima of LiRo reported, "When you're building a project of this size, costs are difficult to access. It's like a roller coaster ride."

Before the work was done, the courthouse roller coaster rose to $47,845,587 -- $3.4 million more than the contract price.

It was only after the courthouse was completed that Dyster appointed an "engineer" from Los Angeles named Ali Marzban. Dyster either did not know, or perhaps he did know, that Marzban was unlicensed.

Either way Dyster, shortly after, fired him and happily went back to having no city engineer.

Dyster undertook his second big project-- the "improvements" to Lewiston Road. This was to cost $7.9 million but, as is well documented- due to negligence and not having a licensed city engineer to design the scope of the work properly- the project will now be in the neighborhood of $16 million -- and take two years longer than anticipated to complete.

Another boondoggle that will get millions into the hands of his campaign contributors is Dyster plan for a $40 million passenger train station that might seat a mere 300 riders per month. Dyster set aside for the "initial" planning for outside engineers $5,176,240.

Conversely, Dyster never supported the Niagara Falls airport expansion which already is seating thousands and growing exponentially. Few understood why he opposed the airport. This is a clue -- perhaps the dirty little secret- the NFTA, not Dyster, got to choose the outside engineers.

To illustrate how Dyster rewards outside engineers who are contributors consider the case of Mark Storch, the director of business development for Foit-Albert Associates.

Public records show that Storch gave Dyster $100 in September 2007; $125 in July 2007; $250 in October 2007; $50 in November 2007; $1,000 in November 2007; $110 in October 2008; $500 in April 2008; $500 in September 2009; and $1,000 in June 2010.

Why a man whose job it is to get business for a Buffalo architectural and engineering firm would donate more than $3,600 to the mayor of Niagara Falls is a reasonable question.

Dyster said he barely knew Mark Storch.

"One hopes he wants good governance," Dyster told the Reporter. "Perhaps he knows I will be active as mayor, and that will mean I will get more projects accomplished, and that will mean more work for everyone." Foit-Albert Associates received three city contracts -- $535,412 to study 10th Street, $1.2 million to draw plans for fuel-dispensing facilities, and $266,464 to design improvements for handicap access at various facilities.

One suspects it resulted in a profit that exceeded the $3,600 Storch invested in the "good governance" mayor.

"Naturally, every politician solicits campaign donations," Dyster said. "Your hope is that the people who donate won't expect special favors from you, but (will donate) to get good government."

Mayor Dyster fired Curtis, then waited a year a half to hire an unlicensed engineer Ali Marzban from Iran. Then fired him. Then waited another six months to hire another engineer -- then fired him, he said, because he lives in Lewiston.

It almost looks like Dyster doesn't want a city engineer and the oversight that comes with it.

Meantime somehow the people who donate to him get the special favor of large outside engineering jobs -- done because there is no city engineer.

 

 

 
 
 
  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.