June 14, 2011
From the publisher, FranK Parlato Jr.
Back in 2007, Paul Dyster was elected mayor of Niagara Falls, in part, because of, or in spite of a fairly bizarre premise that he promised to the voters. He said he wanted his top positions at City Hall filled with the "brightest and best" people -- from out of town.
He said he would conduct nationwide searches and get only people who never lived in Niagara Falls to run our city.
The dumb locals would work under these new out-of-town hires.
It struck me then as it strikes me now: What other city would elect a guy who says the people who vote for him are not honest or smart enough to serve in the top positions of his administration?
He told the Buffalo News, "I think having somebody from the outside ... who does not have any personal ties to the people (in Niagara Falls) can be a substantial advantage."
His out-of-town picks have been a marvel of stupidity. An unemployed Florida man, Roger Melchior, for fire chief -- fired for making racial slurs. A chronic job-shifter from Ohio, Peter Kay, for economic development chief -- fired for not creating a single private-sector job. An unlicensed engineer from California, Ali Marzban -- fired for not having a license, something it required this newspaper to bring to the mayor's attention. A second engineer fired for not moving into the city.
A Buffalo lawyer, Craig Johnson, who -- instead of doing the city's legal work within his department -- has become in effect a legal conduit to Buffalo lawyers, a subcontractor, handing out mammoth legal fees to Buffalo law firms in what could be characterized as trumped-up gigs and thinly disguised vendettas the mayor launches to help campaign contributors and punish enemies.
For example, Johnson doled out $149,000 in taxpayer money for legal fees to Hudgson Russ lawyer Dan Oliverio. The generous Oliverio reciprocated, donating in the four figures to Dyster's re-election campaign. It's a common theme in Dyster's City Hall: Public dollars flow to those who contribute to him.
In fact, Council Chairman Sam Fruscione once told the Reporter that "every single contract and grant is connected to Dyster's re-election campaign."
To round out his out-of-town, nightmarish dream team, Dyster searched the nation and came up with one Donna Owens, a former mid-level bureaucrat in the garbage collection department in Atlanta, to be his city administrator. Owens' record during her three years here has been undistinguished.
Few people in Niagara Falls -- including the erudite and intelligent people who make up the bulk of our readers -- would be able to identify her, in the unlikely event that they actually saw her somewhere on the streets of Niagara Falls. Fewer still can name anything she has done of any significance.
Her chief accomplishments seem to have been installing security cameras in City Hall, taking a police officer away from patrolling the crime-filled streets to guard her and timid Dyster's offices, and requiring all City Hall employees to wear name tags.
Former city administrators, having lived in the city, did not need name tags. They knew the employees' names.
Owens' lack of accomplishment, leadership or even familiarity with the people or this city is curious, considering that the pay Dyster pushed and successfully got the spendthrift Council to approve is utterly irrational.
Owens is collecting $110,000 -- which, with benefits, costs taxpayers $160,000 per year. Before Owens, the city administrator made $60,000 per year.
Owens makes more than the mayor of Buffalo or the Erie County executive.
To put it in perspective, consider that according to www.infoplease.com, Owens, in Niagara Falls (population 50,148), makes more than the mayors of cities like Dallas, Las Vegas or Miami.
She makes almost as much as the city administrators in New York City and Boston, and more than city administrators for Jacksonville, Fla., Honolulu -- or, for that matter, almost any city not 10 times the size of Niagara Falls.
Dyster's spendthrift plan for his out-of-town hires and the exorbitant salaries he has paid them has created a City Hall where employees are earning, with benefits, over $100,000 a year in one of the poorest cities in America.
"It's not about the money to me," Owens told the Gazette. "A salary helps you survive and live a quality of life, but nobody's ever paid what they're worth."
According to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think-tank founded in 1937, it is about money. The taxpayers of Niagara Falls are paying the highest property tax rates in America in proportion to the value of their properties -- a whopping 2.9 percent per year. The national average is less than 1.5 percent.
Dyster added to this burden by raising City Hall salaries almost across the board to keep in line with Owens' salary.
Under Dyster, the city engineer jumped from $68,000 to $91,000; corporation counsel leapt from $65,000 to $93,000; economic development chief (with a new job title) went from $57,000 to $100,000; code enforcement department chief went from $65,000 to $103,000.
Even the rank and file complained. The controller got an $8,000 raise. Assistant corporation counsel, $8,000. The DPW head and his secretary, $7,000.
Dyster raised property taxes by more than 3 percent to help pay for it.
I doubt it was ever better said than by John Accardo, who many believe will be the next mayor of Niagara Falls.
He told the Reporter, "I think the plan to bring in the so-called 'best and brightest' from around the nation has been an absolute and total disaster. I think it has already cost the citizens of Niagara Falls lots of money, and probably decisions that are being made or have been made, that will affect the future of the city for many years to come, are being made by people who have no stake in Niagara Falls whatsoever, other than just to receive a paycheck here."
Accardo added that, after he is elected mayor, he will hire Niagara Falls people for City Hall, people who have made this city their home because they want to live here.
He said he will end the inflated six-figure salaries Dyster has given to outsiders, salaries that are wildly disproportionate for a small city facing grave financial challenges.
Under Dyster, one of the poorest small cities in the country imports what appear to be hapless outsiders and pays them more than top government people in bigger cities.
Maybe that is because Dyster is really an outsider himself.