By Mike Hudson
Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you are selling your house. Now imagine that, at the closing, you are so lame brained that when your lawyer hands you the contract, you don’t read it or have it explained to you, and find out only later that the document while obligating you to transfer ownership, it didn’t require the “buyer” to do anything, like pay you any money for your house.
That, in a nutshell, is exactly what happened to Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who – in 2013 – granted the Seneca Nation of Indians a 20 year extension on the compact that allows the tribe to operate the Seneca Niagara Casino here.
The Senecas got their 20-year extension, while the state and the city got absolutely nothing. The Senecas stopped all payments this past March, saying that there was nothing in the compact that required them to continue. And there isn’t.
Previously, the local share from casino revenue amounted to between $16 million and $21 million per year, every penny of which was squandered by Dyster, who is fond of bloated payrolls, “free” rock concerts and make work jobs for political cronies he refers to as “consultants.”
Some weeks ago, the state’s Financial Restructuring Board issued a series of recommendations for the city in an attempt to stanch the flow of blood red ink that now threatens to result in the imposition of an Albany-appointed hard control board that would wrest city finances away from the spendthrift Dyster administration.
State Assemblyman Angelo Morinello and state Sen. Rob Ortt characterized the city’s financial condition as “dire” and called the report a wakeup call for local politicians. The two issued a joint statement.
“There are two key takeaways from today’s announcement by the Financial Restructuring Board. First, the board delivered a forthright assessment of Niagara Falls’ government and the dire circumstances facing city taxpayers,” they wrote. “Make no mistake about it, we’re here because – for decades – every time the city had to make an important decision, they punted or they fumbled. Second, today offers city residents and officials a new start. The valuable recommendations put forth should serve as a starting point and blueprint for a systematic restructuring of city operations.
“Without drastic changes, the city is heading for a financial control board. Only when we abandon the failed policies of the past can we secure a bright future for Niagara Falls families and businesses,” they concluded.
For his part, Dyster offered up a “don’t worry, be happy” defense before going on to attack Morinello and Ortt.
“Frankly, it strikes as being a little bit political,” he said. “I can understand why at least one of those gentleman would like to deflect attention from issues he’s dealing with to something else.”
He was referring to some minor election law violations Ortt had been accused of, charges that were dismissed as unfounded (see related story).
Dyster wasn’t present at Monday’s city Council meeting, where the state board’s recommendations were debated. He had chosen the week for a Florida vacation, a much needed respite from the permanent vacation that is his job.
Instead, he sent his young city administrator, Nick Melson, to try to put a positive spin on the bad news.
“A lot of what the Financial Restructuring Board talked about were things that we were already doing,” Melson told the assembled lawmakers.
The board advocated for the consolidation of certain services and city departments as part of the fiscal overview, which has attached to it the possibility of up to $5 million in grant funding to facilitate the actions.
“What we have to do is work together and identify what recommendations we want to pursue and go back to the board, which meets quarterly, with an ask,” he said.
The state body singled out a pair of specific municipal divisions, the city’s emergency dispatch office and its civil service commission, calling for the organizations to merge with Niagara County government counterparts.
Ortt farmed out police and fire dispatch to the county Sheriff’s when he was mayor of North Tonawanda, a move that has saved millions. Why Dyster needed the state to tell him what he already should have recognized is unknown.
Other recommendations included consolidation of the city’s engineering, planning and community development departments, something Melson said the administration was less keen on.
In the end, Melson essentially said the city would pick and choose among the state board’s recommendations. Now that Dyster no longer has the casino cash to squander, that $5 million state grant is looking mighty good.