Since it appears that a Democratic primary for mayor of Niagara Falls will be waged between incumbent Mayor Paul A. Dyster and Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian, an examination into their views might be helpful for our readers.
Given the three to one plurality of Democrats versus Republicans in the city, the winner of the primary might well be the next mayor.
The two men present a stark contrast in ideas and philosophy.
Big Versus Small Government
Dyster can be characterized as a proponent of large and expansive government. He faithfully follows the creed that government can utilize money it taxes, and obtains through other sources of revenue, to bring the governed greater happiness and prosperity.
The mayor has prosperity in sight. His long range plans call for downtown "to have a glitzy core surrounded by (The Niagara Falls State Park)".
To accomplish this, the state, led by Gov. Cuomo, USA Niagara, and Dyster himself will decide the projects, select the developers, and provide taxpayer money and other tax incentives to assist chosen developers build glitzy, major projects that Dyster believes would not occur but for government using its power to accomplish it.
Choolokian thinks government needs to provide essential services - such as police, fire, public works, then get out of the way.
"When it comes to economic development and when it comes to creating an economy that grows jobs, the City of Niagara Falls should only work to 'set the table' and create the climate to make good things happen.
"The city isn't supposed to buy the groceries and prepare dinner so the private sector can eat the meal at taxpayer expense.
"How do we 'set the table?' By lowering the crime rate. By cleaning streets, controlling and, yes, even lowering taxes for residents and businesses and tearing down buildings blighting the city."
City on The Rise?
|The old Jenss building- once a vibrant store- has been empty for years.
As for its present condition, Mayor Dyster believes the city, thanks in large part to his policies over the past seven years, is on the verge of a major comeback.
"For the first time in decades," Dyster said, "it feels to many that the economic and political realities --… in Niagara Falls -- have put progress and economic growth within arm's reach."
Last year he said, "There is a new spirit of optimism and a new energy sweeping across our Western New York region…. I predict 2014 is going to be a turning point year in our City's history."
Despite this future rosy picture, presently nearly one fifth of families live in poverty and the city's unemployment rate is high compared to the state-wide average. Businesses are shutting their doors, taxes are high, jobs are scarce and poverty and crime seem to many residents to be on the rise.
The population continues to fall. The US Census Bureau estimates the city to have a population of 49,468 -- the first time since before 1920 that population dipped below 50,000.
Niagara Falls has been ranked the most dangerous city in New York and in the top 50 most dangerous cities in the nation by accredited websites based on FBI crime statistics.
Dyster said the online rankings are inaccurate, and fail to take into account that the influx of tourists have on population when measured against per capita crime.
Dyster said his efforts have resulted in "great results" in the city's war against crime, and the city has achieved a "significant" reduction in dangerous crimes.
|Main Street is lined with vacant buildings.
|Contrary to what Mayor Paul Dyster said, the new courthouse and police station did not act as a catalyst to development on Main St. The $46.5 million monstrosity failed to help fill a single vacant property. But think about it, when did you ever hear that a courthouse or a police station could drive economic development?
For those who know him, they know Dyster is a man given to optimistic forecasts with an added sense of history-in-the making.
When the courthouse opened in 2009, Dyster said it would transform Main St. He called the building "a great public works like the aqueducts and the Coliseum in Rome."
"This magnificent building is the house that you built," he said. "If it is a palace, then by the Grace of God let it be the people's palace!"
Choolokian thinks the courthouse should not be a palace, was overbuilt, and judging by the vacant buildings, it hasn't created a resurgence on Main St.
He says, "Our $46.5 million courthouse ran wildly over budget. That was our taxpayer dollar. The courthouse is costing us $3 million just to cover the annual debt."
Another of Dyster's public works, the $46 million train station, now under construction, is a project Dyster said was designed to "revitalize" the city's North End. It will be paid for by federal and state grants and several millions of city taxpayer money.
Dyster says the train station will be a "catalyst for new investment and business opportunities", "a great addition to the city. A game-changer for sure, and something we will all be proud of for generations to come."
Dyster said it will even have a place in history.
"This is a great, historic milestone in the development, not just for the city of Niagara Falls, but our bi-national region as a whole," said the mayor.
Choolokian is doubtful that trains, let alone a train station, will have a prominent place in the region's future.
"The desire to build a train station ignores present travel habits of those coming to Niagara Falls - which is automobile and airplane."
Only about a dozen daily train passengers make Niagara Falls their destination at the current train station.
Choolokian points out that the Dyster administration has not presented an operating budget to maintain the 25,000 square foot building.
Choolokian said. "Was it something that was needed right now? It might be good to have fast rail someday. But right now we have to worry about job development. Niagara Falls politicians never have the right priorities."
Niagara Falls has received more than $175 million as the local share of slot machine revenues generated by the Seneca Niagara Casino. Dyster has spent approximately $100 million of it on items he proposed.
Dyster says success is around the corner and will be evident if he is given four more years to run the city.
Dyster said, "We continue to use casino revenues wisely to reconstruct our City's infrastructure and rebuild its economy."
Choolokian says casino money has been squandered.
"I don't think you'd find anybody who would say that the city is better off now than it was prior to the opening of the casino," Choolokian said. "The casino money could have been used to replace a lot of expenses. Instead we are talking about tax increases and layoffs. The sad part is it's year after year. The Dyster administration can't blow through money fast enough."
Dyster said, back when the casino money was held up in 2012, and is mentioned here since it shows how Dyster has separated casino money from the money used to run a city, "If the casino thing gets resolved and we get paid, where are we then? Well, where we are is we're a poor upstate city. We're just back to facing the same challenges faced by every upstate city."
Choolokian finds this astonishing.
"How, with an average of $20 million a year coming to the city treasury from the Seneca Niagara casino, can the city of Niagara Falls be called a distressed city? We are not a distressed city, we are a mismanaged city."
In 2011, Dyster proposed the Niagara Holiday Market on Old Falls St.
Dyster chose the developer, a man from Idaho named Mark Rivers. Dyster then used $225,000 in casino cash and USA Niagara chipped in another $225,000 and they gave $450,000 to Rivers.
After the event, it was declared by Dyster an excellent success. Choolokian called it a "flop," and called for an audit to investigate if the $450,000 of public money was actually spent on the market, considering it looked so "shabby."
After the event Choolokian said he would never vote for another taxpayer funded market. "However if anyone wants to open a Holiday market with their own money, I will be all for it."
|The latest artist's rendering of the proposed Hamister Hotel downsized will now provide only six full time jobs and 29 part time jobs.
There was a controversial battle in 2013 over the proposed taxpayer subsidized Hamister hotel.
Dyster said of the hotel, "That's a game-changer if ever there was one, folks."
Elaborating on the importance of the Hamister hotel and projects like it, Dyster said, "When those things start to move there's a momentum that builds there beyond, maybe, what you could anticipate just looking at the pieces where the city and state are the main shakers and movers. I think we're getting there. There's like a tipping point. I don't know if we're past it but we're certainly approaching it."
Dyster told the public that Hamister's "upscale hotel" project would create 70 permanent jobs "with 100 new hotel rooms, a couple dozen market rate apartments, ballroom facilities, street-level retail and restaurants."
Fast forward to 2015. The hotel is about a year behind schedule and the promised upscale hotel was downgraded to a midscale Hyatt Place. There will be no market rate apartments. Hamister has no plans for a restaurant and the 70 permanent jobs have been reduced to six full time and 29 part time jobs, according to Hamister vice president Daniel Hamister.
Hamister also acknowledged his company has not yet obtained financing for the hotel.
From the start, Choolokian opposed the Hamister deal as crafted by USA Niagara, Mayor Dyster and Hamister. He said it was done in secrecy then sprung upon the council with the admonition to "hurry up and approve this."
Choolokian said at the time that the deal shortchanged the city since it did not offer a fair price for the parcel of land where Hamister hoped to build. The lot appraised for more than $1.5 million but the deal called for the city to sell it to Hamister for $100,000.
Choolokian also said he was not provided with sufficient information during the process leading to the selection of Hamister as the project's developer.
There were another half dozen proposals by other developers that were evaluated and ranked on a point system, according to USA Niagara officials, but the proposals and their rankings were not disclosed to the council or made public.
When Choolokian and the council majority wanted time to consider whether the Hamister plan was actually the best deal the city could make, Dyster urged immediate approval.
Dyster told the media, "If they are going to kill the largest development in downtown Niagara Falls since the casino, they are going to have to explain it to the people who would be getting jobs here. I don't get it. I just don't get it." Dyster said this at a time when the hotel was supposed to deliver 70 permanent jobs.
Considering the downsizing and downgrading of the Hamister hotel, particularly in regard to job creation, Choolokian says he wonders whether some of the other offers that were rejected in favor of what Hamister promised were better than what Hamister is now planning to deliver.
"I have concerns about the whole thing from start to finish, really," Choolokian said.
$100,000 Salaries At City Hall
Part of Dyster's faith in government is that it is designed to do a wide range of miraculous activities, if the people in government are the best and brightest. With that in mind Dyster increased salaries of top city hall officials from an average $60,000 to the $100,000 range and more - making this small city of almost 49,500 a haven for some of the highest paid city hall employees in America for a city its size.
The spike in salaries began in 2008, when Dyster conducted a national search for top positions at city hall. He needed the top dollar to lure talent to town.
After several disastrous and embarrassing out of town hires, Dyster has, since then, hired only locals. But the $100,000 salaries remain and continue to rise.
Choolokian opposed Dyster's out of town hiring from the start. "These people didn't know Niagara Falls. They didn't know the history -- a history that runs very, very deep."
Choolokian also opposes the ever surging salaries at city hall.
"The Dyster administration has taken the top city hall salaries, and stipends, to unsupportable levels," Choolokian said.
Hard Rock Concert Series
Dyster wanted it to continue. Choolokian ended it. But before he did, Dyster got the council to approve more than $700,000 in public money for Hard Rock to put on concerts on Old Falls St.
Choolokian, forming a majority on the council with Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson, in 2012, cut off funding, calling it "foolish and reckless spending -- helping a billion dollar private corporation fund its live concert venue here."
Dyster says the use of public money to support Hard Rock events is warranted since it draws visitors downtown, helps promote Niagara Falls as a destination and showcases progress made downtown during his administration.
Choolokian rebutted, "While I think it is great to have concerts downtown, it should be, like other cities, through private funding. Niagara Falls should not be in the business of paying for concerts."
Casino Cash Settlement
While Dyster was ecstatic, Choolokian was perhaps the only elected official to complain when Gov. Cuomo settled the state's dispute with the Seneca Nation and the city got its back casino revenue - $89 million - for the years 2009 through May 31st, 2013.
What Choolokian objected to was that the governor extended the compact with the Senecas in Niagara Falls for 10 more years without consulting stakeholders here.
The compact was due to expire in 2016 and Cuomo extended it to 2023.
Choolokian believes Niagara Falls should have gotten a better deal and would have appreciated an opportunity to negotiate with the state.
"Everything was negotiated wrong. But that is what you get when you elect unqualified people," Choolokian said. "We should have passed a law like Las Vegas. Let Americans operate casinos here and let everyone pay taxes. Seneca and Niagara Falls residents have to be on a level playing field."
Dyster praised the governor for the settlement including the extension of the compact.
In a press release issued from the governor's office, Dyster was quoted, "We could not be here today without the leadership of Governor Cuomo, and I commend him … in reaching this historic agreement."
Low Income Housing
As part of his development strategy, Dyster worked to incentive developers to initiate taxpayer subsidized low income housing projects. Plans are in the works for the conversion of the former South Junior High School Building into Niagara City Lofts and the Walnut Avenue Administration building into Housing Visions Walnut Avenue Homes, both low income housing projects subsidized by taxpayers.
"This did not happen by accident," Dyster said referring to the projects. "We went out and found developers with a solid track record and the ability to finish tough jobs."
Dyster said these housing projects will make two vacant buildings occupied, would net some property taxes and save $2 million in demolition costs.
It will also bring almost 100 welfare or subsidized renters to the buildings.
Choolokian called more taxpayer subsidized housing, "another step in the wrong direction".
People who move into these subsidized apartments will be either from Niagara Falls - which means they will vacate their current homes - making them potentially abandoned - or they will be recruited from other areas. Since many of the latter are on government assistance where they are living now, when they move here, they will likely be on government assistance. County taxpayers will pick up the tab for Medicaid and Public Assistance.
"The problem in Niagara Falls isn't that there is too little low-income housing, it's that there is too much of it. We are maintaining an infrastructure of buildings, streets, sewers and water mains designed to meet the needs of a city population more than double what it is today."
Dyster made headlines across the nation when his administration proposed a program to use taxpayer dollars to pay out of town college graduates to live in Niagara Falls.
"If you piece together a series of wins, then I think it becomes transformative," Dyster said of the program when combined with others he has proposed.
Choolokian thinks current residents come ahead of paying people to move here.
"I believe that, if we treat our city dollars responsibly, and if we're up-front with voters, we can bring Niagara Falls back," he said.
"First, I think we have to end the 'pay to play attitude.' The plan to lure college graduates to Niagara Falls so our taxpayers can pay their student loans is a bad idea."
To date the program, while much commented on in the media has not, as of last report, been able to lure more than seven college grads willing to be paid to live here.
Robert Moses Removal
Dyster did not support the complete removal of the Robert Moses Parkway and that may have been the reason the state designed Riverway, a several mile long, one way road, or, as some say, driveway, that replaces the Robert Moses Parkway.
The Riverway, now under construction, was designed to do what the Robert Moses did for decades: efficiently lead motorists into the Niagara Falls State Park after they exit the interstate 90 - thus ensuring the park's business operations remain profitable.
"One of the major concerns is that (removing the parkway) does not provide direct access to the State Park from the U.S. interstate system, which is how the majority of park visitors get to the park," state parks' officials wrote to explain the need for the Riverway plan.
Choolokian supported the removal of the entire Parkway, and opposed the Riverway plan.
Choolokian said he prefers tourists drive through the city before getting to the park, saying it would be better for local businesses.
While the council unanimously rejected the Riverway concept, it was already a done deal. Dyster admitted he had been working with State Parks on the Riverway design for years, and that, while he agreed with Choolokian's "sentiment" and the council's resolution to eliminate the parkway, he felt the Riverway plan was the result of "compromise" and he supported it.
In the middle of 2014 the Dyster administration revealed a new trash plan that featured an investment of $2.2 million of casino cash to purchase plastic totes.
It was a novel plan that reversed the size of the standard garbage totes - making the refuse tote 64 gallons while the recycling tote was 96 gallons.
Niagara Falls is the only community in the region with reversed sized totes.
The trash plan also required that residents not be able to throw out more than what they could fit inside one 64 gallon tote each week.
This came as a shock for many since before this new plan residents had the ability to dispose of garbage in bags and cans in any amount they desired.
Additionally many small businesses that had regular garbage collection were eliminated from city service and told they must pay for their own dumpsters. Dyster later restored service to some of these businesses.
Despite residents' protests, Dyster stood his ground on the size of the refuse totes, maintaining that small totes will force people to recycle more.
He added an enforcement element by creating what he called the SWEET team to inspect garbage and levy fines for residents who throw out more than allotted amounts or put their excess refuse into the larger totes meant for recycling.
"Violators will be fined," said the mayor after the trash plan was implemented.
Choolokian opposed the trash plan.
"From the very start last spring, the program was administered incorrectly. The trouble is no one, not the mayor and not the council majority, appeared to know what they had gotten the city into.
"The fact that the totes were the wrong size was pointed out to the mayor by a refuse consultant and the mayor ignored the warning. "Many families are in a predicament because they cannot fit their weekly trash into the 64 gallon totes."
Dyster initially called his trash plan a cost savings measure, but the actual expenses of the new trash plan - after restoring businesses, adding leaf collection and adding free service to the Niagara Falls Municipal Housing Authority, reveal it will cost about $600,000 more per year than before the trash plan was implemented.
"Typical Dyster," said Choolokian. "Whatever they do, it always costs us more money and never benefits the taxpayer. We are the only city that can't do garbage right. A service that has been done for centuries. We can't get it right here."
Dyster however declared the program a success, saying the city is throwing out more recyclables and less refuse.
"We knew it would be hard... It was long overdue for environmental reasons... We'll get through it... The majority of people are happy," he said.
While the city takes in tens of millions in casino cash, Dyster has had to raise taxes repeatedly.
Last year, Dyster delivered his proposed 2015 budget to the council 37 days late.
In it, he said there was a structural deficit with the city's revenue insufficient to cover its expenses.
To help cover the shortfall, he proposed laying off 17 workers, take $4.9 million from the "rainy day fund," the savings account the city has for emergency expenses, and raise taxes by 4.5 percent -- 7.7 percent for commercial properties and 2.7 percent for homes.
Choolokian led the council to present more than 80 budget resolutions to keep jobs and eliminate the tax increase. The council adopted some of his resolutions and reduced the tax increase.
Choolokian wanted a zero tax increase and suggested canceling a $1.5 million casino cash contribution to USA Niagara for the state agency to stage parties and events on Old Falls St. and operate the Conference Center and use the money to eliminate the tax hikes.
Dyster argued that casino money could not be used for reducing taxes.
"The casino money is in place; there is no reason to raise taxes," he said. "Yet businesses are going to have to pay another large tax increase. Meantime the mayor continues to hire consultants while contracting out increasing amounts of law and engineer work. Incredibly, he now wants to open his own animal shelter! This city is failing and it's failing in the face of a casino cash windfall."
Dyster said, "We only spend casino money when we know there is a return on investment," which does not include property tax reduction.
Choolokian said Dyster's casino spending suggests there is broad latitude in how a city defines economic development.
For example, Dyster spent casino money on police overtime, new cars for the code enforcement dept, tree stump removal, repaving the city hall parking lot, renovating a building for a not-for-profit corporation -- Isaiah 61 -- and bailing out Community Missions which got hit with an IRS tax lien.
These cannot be said to be economic development or bring a return on investment, Choolokian said. "If you argue buying code enforcement nine brand new Ford Escapes is economic development, you could argue that tax reduction is economic development," he said.
Choolokian did not have the council votes to stave off a tax increase this year.
In 2012, with a three year stalemate on casino cash still unresolved, Dyster proposed what he called a "disaster budget" for 2013 with an 8.3 percent tax hike and layoffs of about two dozen workers.
Choolokian and the then council majority proposed 150 amendments. The largest cut came from the $3.1 million the city funded USA Niagara annually.
Dyster strongly opposed cutting the state agency's subsidy from the city.
"If anything, we've been trying to accelerate economic development downtown," Dyster said, noting USA Niagara's track record for development. "In order to get results, you have to make investments."
Rather than cut USA Niagara off, Dyster felt he would rather ask taxpayers to shoulder a little burden.
Dyster also proposed selling the NYPA relicensing settlement payments of $850,000 a year for 44 years - a face value of $37.4 million for $13.45 million.
Dyster said the money would be used for a number of expenses and initiatives while the casino cash was on hold.
Choolokian and the council majority blocked the plan to sell the NYPA payments.
As for taxes, Choolokian prevailed.
The result was a zero tax increase. USA Niagara was cut from the budget and $3.1 million of city money went into taxpayers' pockets, not the state agency.
On top of that, the city continues to receive $850,000 annual payments from NYPA and is scheduled to receive them for the next 42 years.
$4 million contest
In late 2013, Gov. Cuomo created something called the Downtown Niagara Falls Development Challenge, a contest to be managed by USA Niagara where the state agency would pick winning designers, developers and operators who envision and develop projects in the downtown area to "accelerate the revitalization of Niagara Falls."
The state would put up $4 million per year, and Dyster would seek council approval for the city to put up $4 million in casino cash for the contest for five years.
"This transformative commitment of $40 million will jump start the additional private development needed to create an exciting family friendly Niagara Falls experience," Dyster said, as he proposed setting aside $20 million of casino cash for the contest.
Choolokian plans to vote against the contest.
He said, "The city's crumbling and these guys are agreeing to fund a contest for $4 million.
"In America, if you work hard, you can be a millionaire tomorrow, but it should not be on the back of taxpayers, that's not what America's about. We should not be funding anybody's business. Our top priority should be families of Niagara Falls, not giving millionaires contest money.
"It's pretty sad when the whole government is about contests."
Treating Fracking Waste Water
In Dec., Gov. Cuomo announced his New York State fracking ban. Cuomo's ban does not include treating fracking waste water but only the drilling process.
While Dyster supports the governor's ban on fracking, he appears to be neutral on the treatment of fracking water.
According to Niagara Fall Water Board Executive Director Paul Drof, the Niagara Falls treatment plant on Buffalo Ave. could treat fracking wastewater and this might be an opportunity to earn substantial revenue.
Dyster agreed. He said in 2012. "(E)verybody knows that Niagara Falls, just from a technical standpoint, would be the candidate treatment facility for fracking water, if you decided to go that direction."
In 2011, when the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce asked Dyster, "Would you support the treatment of hydro-fracturing waste water at the Niagara Falls Water treatment plant," Dyster said he had no control over the Water Board, which might decide to accept fracking waste water. If they did, Dyster said, he would put together a Mayor's Advisory Task Force to try to protect public health, and water quality of the Niagara River where the treated waste water would go.
Choolokian, an adamant opponent to treating fracking waste for environmental reasons, said that even if the mayor couldn't control whether frack water treatment came to the Water Board, the council could stop it.
In March 2012, Choolokian led the Niagara Falls City Council to pass an ordinance banning fracking and the treating and or transportation of fracking waste water/materials within the city.
Water Board officials threatened a lawsuit. But the council refused to reconsider and the ordinance, which stands as written, prevents the Water Board from treating fracking waste in Niagara Falls.