With just a week to go before the match between incumbent Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and City Councilman Glenn Choolokian resolved itself in the September 10 primary election, an examination of Dyster’s record in office seems in order for a couple of reasons.
He’s sat at the mayor’s desk for eight years now, after all, eight years in which the city’s decline has been marked. Can anyone really say that the city is better off now than it was on January 1, 2008, when he was first sworn in?
His campaign literature rarely discusses that past eight years, a period during which as many as 7,500 hardworking, taxpaying citizens up and left the city. It was under Dyster’s watch that Niagara Falls became the most dangerous city in the state, according to MyLife.com, Home Security Shield and other websites and, at the same time, was singled out as having the highest property taxes of any municipality in New York by the state’s Financial Restructuring Board for Local Governments, an agency that’s been formally asked to step in here and take control of finances for the nearly bankrupt city.
In addition to an obscene tax rate of more than 20 percent on the real value of all the property in Niagara Falls, Dyster’s City Hall has taken in and spent around $180 million in revenue as the city’s share of the slot machine take at the Seneca Niagara Casino.
How could a city with the highest tax rates in this highly taxed state, one which has also received approximately $22 million a year from a revenue source – the casino – generally unavailable to other municipalities be in such dire straits financially that it has to go begging to Albany for a state bailout?
The list of reasons is long and complicated, but boils down to fiscal irresponsibility of an epic scale. For those of you who may not have been paying close attention, here are a few lowlights.
THE HOLIDAY MARKET
Back in 2011, Dyster hooked up with a fly by night promoter from Boise, Idaho named Mark Rivers. Together the two men hatched a plan to foist a winter festival called the Holiday Market on the unsuspecting Niagara Falls populace.
Rivers managed to cajole a total of $481,000 from the city and the state’s USA Niagara Development Corp. to stage the 37-day event here based on the promise of 250,000 people visiting downtown Niagara Falls in the dead of winter to ice skate, buy holiday treats, and listen to concerts.
In the end, the Holiday Market drew perhaps a tenth of the number of people Rivers said it would, nobody wanted to ice skate on the substandard rink, and every concert he staged lost money.
Rivers had promised some 80 vendors but reality saw less than half that number on any given day, with Rivers himself running as many as seven booths in order to make it look busier than it was.
What about the $481,000 in city and state taxpayer money? Gone with the winter wind.
In an interview with the Idaho Business Review, Dyster blamed the people of Niagara Falls for Rivers’ failure.
“This is a problem that has existed in Niagara Falls going back decades,” Dyster said. “People just don’t know how to treat out-of-town developers and business people.”
Dyster vowed to repeat his folly and stage another Holiday Market during the winter of 2012-2013. But bad press and persistent calls for an audit or even a criminal investigation of the one he did have put the kibosh on those plans.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MUSEUM
Another character with close ties to Dyster was Kevin Cottrell, a state parks employee who also claimed to be an expert on the history of the Underground Railroad in Western New York.
Dyster and former state Rep. Francine DelMonte had Cottrell transferred from the state to City Hall and all manner of madcap antics ensued.
Cottrell managed to convince Dyster and much of the media that Harriet Tubman herself had led “more than 300” freedom seeking escaped slaves to Niagara Falls, where she personally escorted them across the old Suspension Bridge, which once stood near to where the Whirlpool Bridge is today.
It was a heck of a story. The problem was that it was a bunch of baloney sliced thick. Still, it was used to promote the Underground Railroad Museum, which would be housed in Dyster’s new, $44 million Amtrak station, built around the historic Old Customs House on Whirlpool Street beneath the Whirlpool Bridge.
An investigation by the Niagara Falls Reporter discovered that, at most, Tubman had assisted fewer than 20 former slaves in coming north during the years prior to the Civil War, when the Underground Railroad was in existence. To make matters worse, there was only one vague reference to her making any crossing near Niagara Falls, in the company of but one escaped slave, who happened to be a cousin of hers.
And that reference was contained in her ghost written and error filled autobiography, “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman,” which states that she once passed through what is now the city’s North End on a train bound for Canada.
But people took Cottrell at his word. He is black, after all. For his services as the city’s resident “expert” on the Underground Railroad, Cottrell received a salary and benefit package that cost city taxpayers $118,904 a year. Dyster also set up an Underground Railroad Heritage Commission and gave it a budget of $350,000 annually.
The Commission commissioned a scholarly study, done by two professors from Niagara University, in an attempt to prove that Niagara Falls was a central location for the Underground Railroad’s activities. But while bona fide sites exist in Lockport and Lewiston, the study was unable to come up with a single conclusive link between the Underground Railroad and the city, which, incidentally, did not even exist at the time the Underground Railroad was active.
It turned out that Cottrell was also the founder and president of a private company called Motherland Connexions, which provided high priced tours of Underground Railroad sites on the Niagara Frontier.
The publicity he was able to get as a Dyster appointed city official was good for business.
He was told he would have to sever his ties with the company following an expose in this newspaper. He said he would but he didn’t, and was sent packing.
The Underground Railroad Museum was downgraded to an Underground Railroad Interpretive Center following Cottrell’s hasty exit. There will also be a park named after Harriet Tubman with a statue erected of her. After all, she may or may not have been a passenger on a train that passed over there once, 156 years ago.
Millions of dollars have been squandered on all of this with nothing whatsoever to show for it. Not a single artifact has been acquired, and no exhibits have been designed.
Like his Holiday Market, Dyster’s Underground Railroad Museum has proven to be an epic failure, and one that you don’t hear too much about anymore.
The Lewiston Road Project
One of Dyster’s first major public works undertakings was the reconstruction of Lewiston Road, from the North Main Street railroad overpass to the city line.
Dyster’s first official action after taking office on Jan. 1, 2008, was to fire Robert Curtis, arguably the most competent city engineer in recent memory. To replace Curtis, Dyster brought in Ali Marzban, who lasted in the job for a matter of months until an investigation by the Niagara Falls Reporter revealed that he was not only unlicensed to practice civil engineering in New York State, he wasn’t licensed to practice anywhere in the country!
Marzban’s lasting contribution to the city was the Lewiston Road reconstruction, which he signed off on illegally. Construction on the project began in 2009, by the time it was completed in August 2013, it was millions of dollars over budget and three years behind schedule. The city’s main thoroughfare had been closed for more than four years, and a mountain of litigation remained in the project’s wake.
In other words, it was a fairly typical Dyster project.
Once construction began, it was confirmed that the road had been built on a base of “industrial slag” that turned out to be made up of highly radioactive byproducts from the World War II era Manhattan project.
In addition to Marzban being unlicensed, it turned out that Wendel Duchscherer, the engineering firm Dyster hired to oversee the project, had no health physicists on staff to evaluate the seriousness of the remediation work, and the bid winning contractor, Man O’Trees lacked a state permit to excavate and dispose of radioactive waste and so was forced to miss a construction season while obtaining it.
The project, originally bid out at $7.7 million, ended up costing the city more than $15 million by the time it was completed. Wendell alone received nearly $4 million – being often paid twice – once for their design mistakes and once again for fixing their mistakes.
It also cost the job of Jeffery Skurka, the city engineer Dyster hired in the hope of repairing damage caused by the Marzban hire. Skurka, a conscientious man with a penchant for actually doing his job, was ordered by Dyster not to visit the Lewiston Road construction site in order to make inspections, something routinely done by competent project engineers.
Skurka countermanded Dyster’s orders and found that the contractor was guilty of unsafe excavation practices, filed a report with OSHA about the situation and was suspended and then fired by Dyster a short time later for doing his job. A lawsuit filed by Skurka is pending in the courts.
Man O’Trees eventually walked off the project after Dyster administration officials ordered the radioactive slag be reburied and paved over rather than removed, something company officials thought was illegal.
Dyster brought in Accadia Site Contracting to finish the project. Whether or not the company paid as much attention to the safety aspects of the job as Man O’Trees is uncertain. And without a city engineer to oversee the work, no official record is available.
Only one thing is certain. From the time the first shovelful of earth was turned on the Lewiston Road reconstruction to its completion more than four years later, the project was a nightmare for the citizens of Niagara Falls, and particularly for those unfortunate enough to have owned homes and businesses along the affected area.
The problem with undertaking an article like this is that it could go on almost indefinitely. There is the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion, the Griffon Park canoe launch, the disaster at Jayne Park, the Hamister hotel deal, the anonymous slush fund created by the shadowy Building a Better Niagara group, the cricket field no one is using, his many appointments and hiring of campaign workers to important city positions, the removal of many properties from the tax rolls, his lavish funding of marginal groups like Isaiah 61, the Hard Rock Café concert series and more.
A lengthy article could be written about his proposed developments at places such as South Junior High School for low income individuals, or his penchant for artificially inflating the city’s declining population numbers by courting the state Parole Board into sending unprecedented numbers of registered sex offenders and other felons to Niagara Falls to live out their golden years.
Is the city in better shape now than it was prior to Dyster’s election? Only a madman would answer in the affirmative. The city’s downward spiral has been accelerated by the presence of a chief executive who seems openly hostile to business and doesn’t have a clue about creating a private sector job.
He knows how to spend money, and spend it in ways that provide little return on investment.
When Dyster first ran for the mayor’s office in 2007, he said his would be an administration of “big ideas.”
He didn’t say they would be good ideas.