State Auditors Looking at Joseph Davis Park More Than $1.5 Million Spent, Much of it Missing
By Frank Parlato
In recent weeks, the Niagara Falls Reporter published a series of articles on the misdeeds and allegedly illegal actions of former Town of Lewiston Supervisor Steven Reiter.
Since no one has come forward to dispute a single allegation printed in the Reporter, one might reasonably assume that some, most, or perhaps all of the allegations are true.
But now another issue looms over Lewiston: The state comptroller's office is auditing the town's activities at Joseph Davis State Park.
Touted by the Reiter administration as a signature project that would define their legacy, there were grand plans, such as five-star hotels, convention centers, boat ramps, even an Audubon center.
One by one these fell by the wayside, and, aside from a half-finished paving job on one of the parking lots, little has been accomplished.
It has instead become a source of speculation and rumor, with everyone asking the same question: "Where has almost $1.5 million gone?"
Some of the ideas were hare brained, of course. Like using Joe Davis Park for overflow parking for Art Park, as if people will park at the north end of town to be shuttled by an electric motor, covered train to the village, or for RV shows.
Ever look at the place?
It looks like a WWII battlefield. The roads have craters, not potholes but craters, 50 or 80 craters on a single road. Broken down buildings; rotted picnic tables, decrepit toll booths.
The park has not been manned for 25 years.
So you just got to wonder if this was a field of dreams or a field of scams for Reiter.
Joseph Davis Park is located on the extreme northwestern corner of the town. Many years ago, it was deemed under-utilized and too expensive to maintain, and because of this, it was closed by the State of New York. Somehow Reiter convinced himself and his board that it would be a great idea for the town to assume a financial burden the state itself would not bear.
And so the saga of Joseph Davis Park began.
One of the first things the town board did was to form a local development corporation, known as an LDC. The stated purpose of this LDC was to create jobs. That is a typical promise made to form the entity. These LDCs are exempt from many of the rules that guide the operations and financial transactions conducted by local governments. They are not subject to public procurement laws that require contracts to be bid competitively, and the debt these entities issue, even if for the benefit of a local government, is not subject to the limits on debt for local governments.
The comptroller's office has said "the use of LDCs and similar organizations to finance local government operations and projects increases the risk of waste, fraud, or abuse of taxpayer dollars or assets." Essentially, LDCs help municipalities skirt the rules and obscure the transparency that government on all levels should display.
This made it a perfect playground for Reiter and company.
One of his first acts was to buy an $80,000 lawnmower.
It was bought the same way you and I would: go to Home Depot or Sears and buy one for our homes. But we would have checked around for good prices and did a bit of shopping. But that's not what happened with the LDC's lawnmower purchase.
No competitive bidding was done.
When the lease was signed for the town to operate the Joseph Davis Park, the taxpayers were told the park would be self-sufficient. Revenues would pour in and it wouldn't cost a single penny of town money to operate. It sounded great to everyone who heard it, and in the 2012 town budget, a total of $20,000 was budgeted for operations at Joe Davis Park.
Yet during 2012, $460,000 was spent there despite a $20,000 budget. No one seems to be able to account for any real progress or improvements at the park except for the $190,000 half-finished parking lot debacle.
Where did the money go?
And the flood of revenue that would supposedly stream in ended up totaling $100. Half of the income came from a $50 rental of a picnic shelter.
Aside from the money, there were curious things.
Did you know that Reiter tore down several buildings that contained asbestos. Now get this, he simply knocked them over and set them on fire. Asbestos is an odd mineral. When it is burned it sparkles in the air. It has a luminescence. A cloud of asbestos sparkling above was as dangerous to the several workers - some of them in their 20's - as any kind of hazard you can imagine. Asbestos doesn't hurt anybody until it gets out in the air.
Now, of course, this has been hushed up, but these workers were told by Reiter to burn down these buildings: old bath houses, concession stands and changing houses once used for a park that has been closed for 25 years.
In any event, on the day of the burn, as a cloud of asbestos sparkled in the sunlight, one of the agents for the NY DEC saw this big cloud of smoke. He came. Reiter told him to scat.
The town was fined some $10,000.
Reiter was lucky he did not go to jail.
Eventually, the town had to cart the asbestos off and dump it at Modern.
But I digress.
What happened to the money?
Money went to engineers, consultants, and what not.
But my friends, it looks to me like it was, more or less, a scam.
Not quite the self-supporting place Reiter and company promised.
So now it's time to find out exactly where over a million dollars went.
Some of it was doled out to the LDC board's "consultant," Lou Giordino of CEA International, a Rochester firm hired to create the jobs LDCs are designed to provide. But, after getting paid $250,000, the LDC was quietly dissolved, and CEA International has not created a single job.
Not one. What did he do? Nobody knows.
He got a quarter of a million dollars and he did not create jobs.
He might was well have had a brief case and a gun.
But, there is more: $750,000 remains unaccounted for.
Who knows where it went, or how it was spent, or wasted?
Was it all used honestly or properly?
Did anyone illegally profit in any way?
The public deserves those answers and this newspaper intends to get them.
Meantime, people are tired of hearing the excuse that "so what if it was wasted, it was only (NYPA) greenway money."
That may be true, but in reality it is public money that should have been used to benefit the entire community. It shouldn't be tossed away like monopoly money because of its source.
Today, there are more questions than answers. But now that the secretive LDC is dissolved, the answers will all come out, one way or another.
People around town are hearing of new plans to spend more money at Joe Davis. Some civic leaders are saying things like, "we have spent far too much money there to stop."
Maybe they never heard of common expressions like "throwing good money after bad" or "it's time to cut our losses."
But those are policy decisions that must be made by the town board in the near future.
I will, nevertheless, make a suggestion to those who do make those policies: before you spend one more dime of public funds there, give the public a thorough accounting of the money that has been spent to date.
Once you do that, the public may have an idea or two of its own on the future development of Joseph Davis Park.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
Mar 11, 2014