|Council Chairman Andrew Toiuma (above) explains reason for sponsoring resolution to buy brownfield property (top of page).
Quite frankly, we couldn’t understand it. Why in the world would Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster want to buy a languishing brownfield property on Highland Avenue for double its’ assessed value?
Why would he unveil a three year plan for the parcel, which will see the city shelling out $845,000 for the parcel, when the city is so broke that an official request has been made to the state to have its’ Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments step in and take charge of advising elected officials on how to solve the ongoing budgetary crisis here?
The deeply rooted cynicism endemic to anyone who has spent more than a few days toiling about a newspaper office told us the answer was simple; Dyster was blowing close to a million dollars of your money in a cheap, election year ploy to simply make it appear as though he was actually doing something.
Say it ain’t so, right? That would be horrible. So we took our questions to city Councilman Andrew Touma, who successfully introduced the Council measure that allowed Dyster to buy the property.
What reason could the city possibly have for buying the brownfield at twice its assessed value?
“Well, because it’s an opportunity and the city has the opportunity to purchase the property and then develop it,” Touma replied. “And get it ready for, get it ready for, well, development. If there was private industry who was interested in the property and wanted to develop on the property. ”
Dyster paid $165,000 for the 5.5 acre parcel at 3625 Highland Ave., which includes the Niagara Science Museum. Property owner Nick Dalacu bought the parcel in 2002 for about $40,000 and its’ assessed value is $72,200.
Is there a “private industry” interested in developing the property? If there was, why didn’t they just buy it from Dalacu, who had it listed on eBay for months without getting a bid?
“All I know is that the timing is right to purchase the property, you know, and get it ready for development,” Touma replied. “Timing is everything. The timing is right.”
The parcel was originally a part of the massive Union Carbide facility in the city’s North End. Dalacu opened a museum, dedicated to antique scientific instruments, and attempted to run his own solar panel manufacturing business, which failed to attract investors and became defunct.
Dalacu will lease the space the museum currently occupies but Touma said he was unsure about how much the rent will be.
“I’m not sure about that,” he said. “I didn’t sit down and create the terms. Whatever he arranged, whatever he owes the city, I’m not sure about that.”
Is the city actually buying the museum exhibits as part of the deal?
“I am not sure,” Touma said. “With regards to that. I’m trying to think but I don’t recall.”
Dyster’s proposed capital budget calls for spending $160,000 this year, $100,000 next year, $150,000 in 2017 and $300,000 each in 2018 and 2019 on the project. That comes to $845,000 above the cost of actually purchasing the property.
Because of its’ use by Union Carbide, the parcel is considered a “brownfield.” It has been the target of some remediation work conducted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation some years back, but may need more.
Have soil borings been taken to help determine the extent of the remediation. Is there a provision in the contract regarding responsibility and funding for the cleanup?
“I haven’t heard,” Touma said. “I would imagine it’s going to be a standard contract.”
Will the state assist in the cleanup? What percentage of the cost will be borne by the Niagara Falls taxpayers?
“I don’t know what the percentage is,” Touma said. “I don’t have the documentation.”
Did the city have the property appraised by a competent industrial appraiser who might have an inkling of the sort of remediation work might be needed to be done on land that has been formally listed as a brownfield?
“I think I saw, there was something,” Touma said. “Do you know what the appraisal was? Again, I wouldn’t think the city would put itself in a position to buy a property that has contaminants.”
Only one question remained. Why would Andrew Touma recommend the city spend $845,000 to acquire and “develop” a piece of property that is known to be contaminated and hasn’t been appraised? How could he push for it without knowing whether or not the contents of Dalacu’s museum is included in the high purchase price?
“In this case, you know, with this project, I’m thinking of the importance of this project to the mayor,” Touma said. “We have to do what’s best to move the city forward.”
Clearly, there must have been something in the contract that made him feel comfortable about the deal.
“I haven’t seen the contract,” Touma said when we asked him about it. “Not the contract per se. I saw what was being proposed to us. I’ve reviewed what I need to review and I feel comfortable with that. I don’t know if there is a due diligence clause in the contract.”
But isn’t it the job of the city Council to review contracts proposed by the administration to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is being wisely spent? Would anyone in their right mind buy a piece of property without looking at the sales agreement?
“I don’t think (Dyster) needs our approval for the contracts. He can get into any contracts he wants,” Touma said. “It’s his prerogative, he’s the mayor. The checks and balances are in place. We are doing our part. Again, you know, making sure everything is in order, I think we’re doing that.”
How can one know that “everything is in order” in a contract one has never seen? We didn’t bother to ask.
While Kristen Grandinetti is the mayor’s right hand woman on the city Council, Touma is clearly his right hand man. And with the help of Councilman Charles Walker, they allowed Dyster to commit nearly a million dollars to a worthless piece of Highland Avenue property the city will be saddled with to time immemorial.