“You realize that Paul Dyster is wasting $1.8 million needlessly, right?”
John Accardo has summoned me to his office on a Monday morning when everyone else is celebrating Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world by sleeping in. I blink at the question and hesitate for a moment before saying, “It’s got to be a lot more than that, doesn’t it?”
Accardo chuckles, and then lets loose with a full-body laugh.
“That’s what they call gallows humor, right?” his blue eyes bore in on mine. While they seemed pleasant just moments ago, now they are flinty. “I’m sick of politicians killing our city, though.”
That’s just one exchange in a freewheeling interview that Accardo gave me after weeks of pestering on my part. The candidate, who seems to prefer press conferences to long sit-down interviews, has given me a full hour on his busy schedule, provided I arrive at 8 sharp on a Monday that many of my peers are enjoying as a holiday.
Accardo, for his part, is more casual than I’ve become used to watching him on the campaign trail; instead of the ever-present business attire, he’s wearing blue jeans, a windowpane sport coat, and a Yankees hat. I sense he wants to open up and let me see the real candidate, instead of the tightly-scripted candidate that his disciplined campaign has presented to the public so far. Sitting at his cluttered desk at the Pine Avenue offices of the Accardo Agency, he seems a man at ease this morning, as if he knows that his message is resonating with voters.
Accardo and I agree to the format of the morning’s interview; I will do a Q&A, and include his responses verbatim—something he says he considers absolutely crucial in making his case to Falls voters:
Q: How’s the race going?
A: If you mean “Who’s up, who’s down,” I’m not really paying attention to that, although I am, as they say, “cautiously optimistic” about where things are headed. But, if you mean how is the public responding when I go out and meet them at the door, at dinners, at a charity function I was at last week—look, I don’t do clichés, but it really seems like people are saying it’s time for a change.
Q: So, are you saying they want to fire Paul Dyster?
A: Yes—but they also want to put a leader in who can actually lead. I keep hearing the words “private sector experience” from people who are telling me they’re supporting me. One little Italian grandmother, the other day, told me she’s praying for me because she was tired of her children urging her to move out of the Falls, and wanted to be able to give them a reason she was staying. She said she wanted to tell them that her city had turned the corner, and that finally someone was running government more like a business. She told me her late husband had built a family business, had been successful, had created jobs and then had watched their neighborhood crumble around them, until, five years ago, he finally closed up shop.
Q: Interesting. But back to running City Hall like a business. That’s just rhetoric, John. You know that. Government operates at a loss.
A: True. But I’ve been in the insurance business my whole life. I deal in risk. I deal in mitigating losses. Here’s an example. You realize that Paul Dyster is wasting $1.8 million needlessly, right?”
Q: It’s got to be a lot more than that, doesn’t it?
A: [Laughter.] That’s what they call gallows humor, right? I’m sick of politicians killing our city, though. No, back to my original point. Paul Dyster is spending $1.8 million in this year’s budget on police dispatching.
Q: OK, but don’t we need that?
A: Absolutely. But the issue is, who’s going to pay for it? Three years ago, North Tonawanda managed to enter into a deal to shift their dispatch to the county. It was a five year consolidation deal—they paid the full shot the first year, and North Tonawanda’s contribution drops each year, until the fifth year, when they are supposed to pay zero. And why wouldn’t they? What do cities get for their county taxes, really?
Q: OK, so we are spending $1.8 million on dispatch this year, and Mayor Dyster just raided the casino funds to fill a $7.4 million structural deficit. So, you are telling me our deficit could have been closer to $5 million?
Q: Why would the county do this for us?
A: Why wouldn’t they? The state gave them a great big grant, $400,000, just to roll in NT’s dispatch. And no one lost any jobs, either. It just was a more efficient use of personnel and resources. Think about this: every year, we send around $11.5 million in taxes to Niagara County. By we, I mean the taxpayers of the City of Niagara Falls. And what do we get in return? County government certainly provides services to the towns—sheriff’s patrols and things like that, but what do we get? The Weights & Measures people checking our gas pumps? Why should NT get to offload a cost center like that, and Niagara Falls gets nothing?
Q: So why isn’t the county handling our dispatch now?
A: I actually put that to county officials. I called up Jeff Glatz, the county manager, who told me that the county had actually offered this option to the cities several years ago, but only NT went for it. All the towns rely on the county’s call center, but Lockport and Niagara Falls refuse to turn dispatch services over to the county. And, by the way, Sheriff [James R.] Voutour runs a really tight ship at the county’s 9-1-1 center. I suspect that Dyster’s relationship with the unions has a lot to do with it—
Q: Right. Didn’t the county get sued over consolidated dispatch? Dyster said the county lost the lawsuit and that’s why we can’t do consolidated dispatch
A: Dyster’s flat-out lying. That lawsuit was over who got to have seniority among the dispatch people, the NT dispatchers or the county’s existing employees—not over whether it works or not. In fact, I talked to Art Pappas, the mayor of North Tonawanda, at a dinner a month or so ago, and he told me that dispatch with the county hadn’t skipped a beat, everything worked the same as before—but that he had a shrinking line in his city budget every year that is on its way to zero. I want to zero out that unnecessary $1.8 million that Paul Dyster is wasting. And by the way, Monroe County, with around 750,000 people, have just one dispatch center for their whole county, and it works great. And they manage to provide excellent coverage for Rochester—a city more than four times the size of Niagara Falls.
Q: So, you want to eliminate that $1.8 million cost center.
A: Absolutely. I also want to look at how much overtime we’re running at the Police Department, and find out what we need to do to return police to the beat. Personnel running dispatch serve an important purpose, but they don’t directly make our streets safer. I’m not opposed to using some of the savings from consolidating our dispatch to put shoe leather back on the streets.
Q: Do you think our streets are safe?
A: Do you? I don’t. It’s not reflection on our police, but I don’t believe that our current city administration has used them properly, no.
Q: Is this an isolated example of waste by the Dyster Administration?
A: You talked to Stefan Mychajliw last week, right? [Mychajliw criticized the Dyster Administration for raiding casino funds to pay down this year’s structural deficit and worried that it will damage the city’s bond rating.] I read your article. He was right.
Q: You mean the part where he endorsed you?
A: That too. But in all seriousness, as a businessman, I would never run my business the way Paul Dyster has run this city. I could never, actually. If I did the business world equivalent of what he did, at best I’d be out of business, and possibly going to jail. You can’t fund your budget using short-term, one-time windfalls.
Q: What’s the answer, then?
A: Again, we need to look at all of our cost centers for reductions. We need to eliminate redundancies. And we need to make sure that we state up-front what we intend to do with our casino revenues. We should have a plan for spending that money on long-term, one-time investments—not repeatedly using that money to cover our basic expenses. What Paul Dyster is doing is like paying for your groceries with a credit card. Long-term, it’s a very bad idea.
Q: What about the budget, though? Every year, it ends up being controversial.
A: That’s because it’s worked on in the dark of night. It’s kept out of sight. We need an open and transparent process. We need a year-long budget review process. We need to be working with department heads all year long to cut costs, to eliminate waste. As mayor, I intend to produce a balanced budget—and I intend to do it before Sept. 15. The surprises in this budget were hidden from public scrutiny until October.
Q: Are you implying Paul Dyster didn’t want the budget out there before the primary?
A: Would letting voters knowing he raided the casino money have helped him?
Q: So, where do we go from here?
A: We need to rebuild Niagara Falls one brick at a time, one job at a time, one balanced budget line at a time. We need to bring in private sector jobs paying good, living wages. We need to stop treating the county as an enemy and try to work with them—and we certainly need to demand that they treat us fairly for the $11.5 million in taxes we give them every year. But that takes leadership, and that’s something we’ve been missing for a while, isn’t it?