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Maziarz, Ceretto to Launch Website Detailing Dyster's Casino Cash Spending

By Mike Hudson

Seeing how the city blew through the first $69 million, State Senator George Maziarz and State Rep. John Ceretto propose to keep better tabs on casino cash.

Let no man say that no one got anything out of the $69 million of casino money already spent. Mayor Dyster unloaded $557,000 on the Hard Rock concerts where he himself went onstage and introduced acts. Now Dyster's casino cash expenditures will be monitored.

The Dyster administration gave $1.5 million to millionaire hotelier Faisal Merani to improve his hotels so he could better compete with fellow hoteliers who had to pay for their own improvements.

$225,000 of casino cash went to the Holiday Market, a series of shacks that for obvious reasons almost no one visited. But casino cash was meant to flow like a river, right out of our hands... And speaking of Rivers, is the happy Idaho developer, Mark Rivers, who gave us the Market and had his own personal holiday - with our money.

State Sen. George Maziarz will announce this week that he and state Rep. John Ceretto will create a website showing how every dime of the $89 million the city is to receive under the agreement reached last month between the state and the Seneca Nation of Indians is spent.

"Quite frankly, the governor has been very frustrated, and I've been appalled with the way the city's used the millions of dollars it has already received under the Seneca casino compact," Maziarz told the Reporter.

Officials in Albany scrambled to figure out a way to regulate how the money would be spent by the city, he said. Gov. Andrew Cuomo in particular is baffled by how the city could have received nearly $70 million in casino money already, along with the usual grants and subsidies, and still have the poorest economy, highest poverty and worst crime of anywhere in the state.

"It would have required separate legislation that would have delayed the process," Maziarz said. "And that was out of the question."

Much of the money will go toward paying down the debt service on the city's grandiose Main Street Municipal Complex which included the courthouse and police headquarters, which set taxpayers back about $47 million and holds the honor of being the costliest courthouse per square foot of any courthouse in the United States.

Reeds Construction Data's study of costs in 25 American cities in 2009 (the year the Municipal Complex was built) revealed that courthouses and jails, even in expensive-to-build places like New York City, were built for under $275 per square foot. The Niagara Falls courthouse cost $415 per square foot, public records show.

The white elephant was sold to the public by Mayor Paul Dyster and former state assemblywoman Francine Del Monte as a "transformational" project for the city's North End, which was an urban slum before the courthouse was built and remains an arguably worse urban slum more than four years after its' opening.

"You've got the same people, Dyster and [City Planner Tom] DeSantis now overseeing this crazy train station project and I think it's important for people to be able to see where their money is going," Maziarz said.

The train station's centerpiece is to be an Underground Railroad cultural heritage center. The 1,000-square-foot room has already had more than one million dollars spent on it, and Dyster and DeSantis have already budgeted another $1.4 million on the attraction.

"This is a $2.4 million room that's only about as big as some people's living rooms," Maziarz said. "It's insane and I think people ought to be able to see how their money is being spent on an ongoing basis."

To that end, Maziarz and Ceretto will be meeting this week with City Comptroller Maria Brown. The website will start off showing the $89 million the city receives from the state and then - daily and even hourly— post subtractions when items come in for payment.

"Maria is a great public servant and an asset to the city of Niagara Falls," Maziarz said. "She's been very helpful in the past."

Millions of dollars in casino revenue was spent by Dyster and the city council on questionable things like the Hard Rock Cafe concert series, the wildly unsuccessful Holiday Market and various neighborhood festivals.

"The state has poured millions and millions of dollars into Niagara Falls only to watch it disappear," Maziarz said. "Now, all this time later, you have $70 million in casino revenue spent by the city with nothing to show for it, not a single good-paying private sector job created by all that spending."

But Dyster has defended the spending.

"Since I've been mayor, I've been proud of the way we've spent casino cash," he told the Reporter. "I think we used it in a way that's made a real difference in the city and I think that one of the points that evidences that is the sort of things we're unable to do because casino cash hasn't been delivered. We tried to use it mostly as a non-recurring revenue, but I did continue, as my predecessor did, in utilizing casino revenues to pay the debt on the public safety building, and that's what's caused the cash flow crunch we're in now. We have to cover for roughly $5 million per year with other funds because we didn't have the casino revenues to pay that debt."

Maziarz said the website he and Ceretto are creating will allow city taxpayers to decide for themselves who is right.

"Their original commitment was to use (casino money) for economic development and infrastructure repair. I wish they had done more," said Maziarz. "There was a proposal to rebuild neighborhoods, starting around the casino, to rebuild single-family housing, offer them to casino employees, and rebuild the neighborhoods - one street at a time."

Instead, the city did exactly what they promised they would not do. And that is use the money for their operations and maintenance expenses. What they've done is that they've labeled anything and everything as economic development, even paying salaries. They have 22 people working full-time between community development and economic development departments, and they pay those salaries out of casino revenue. Is that an operating cost or is that an economic development cost? They identify it as an economic development cost.

The Dyster administration has been blasted publicly by numerous state officials, including state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat who the mayor enthusiastically supported in his re-election bid.

"We found that the city has a pattern of structural budget deficits, meaning that recurring revenues were not sufficient to fund recurring expenditures. During our audit period the general fund's annual budget gap averaged $12.4 million," a report issued by DiNapoli last month stated. "One cause of this structural deficit was that casino moneys had not been received since 2008 (Dyster's first year in office), yet the City continued to budget for these revenues. While the City has been significantly affected by the casino revenue impasse, its financial condition has worsened significantly due to its budgeting practices."

Perhaps the Maziarz-Ceretto website will embarrass Dyster and his minions enough that they will be more prudent about how they spend your money.

Or maybe they're beyond shame.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Jul 16, 2013