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ANALYSIS By Frank Parlato

It started out small and simple. But the originally discussed plan to merely add lighting in front of the famed and popular Italian restaurant The Como, on the 2200 block of Pine Avenue, where a number of nighttime accidents occurred, has mushroomed into a full-blown plan by Mayor Paul Dyster to replace 146 fixtures on 73 lightpoles along Pine Avenue from Portage Road to Hyde Park.

Dyster's plan is moving toward presentation by the mayor to the Council, based on a lighting study being done by VBC Lighting Inc. of Buffalo, and is a plan to spend what appears to be about $1.57 million -- not counting installation -- for new lights and fixtures. The mayor apparently selected VBC Lighting to do the work and has not expressed interest in getting other bids.

"I'm not sure if it will be sole source or not," Dyster told the Reporter.

The mayor's plan may hit a roadblock on its way toward implementation. Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said he will vote to block any plan to expand lighting without looking at multiple bids.

"I want a Request for Proposals," Fruscione said, "not just one bidder with unknown ties to the mayor."

The mayor claims he has no ties to VBC Lighting and that he merely asked VBC to make a study to determine how dark the street is and what can be done to correct it.

According to Tom Meidenbauer, local manager of VBC, his company is doing exactly that. There will be no charge for the study, Meidenbauer added, but said his report will show that there are places on Pine Avenue where there is less than half the light that is normally considered safe for pedestrians. Meidenbauer said his company has no political connection to the mayor. He said Dyster liked the Philips Hadco Bulbs on display at a conference and decided these were what he wanted to use in Niagara Falls.

"VBC is Philips Hadco's authorized representative," Meidenbauer said. "I never met the mayor before this."

The fixtures and bulbs the mayor wants, according to Meidenbauer, will be $1,100 each. Two 150-watt Philips pulse start metal halide lightbulbs will be recommended for each pole. As an initial demonstration, VBC will offer to provide bulbs for three poles in front of The Como. If the city doesn't want them, they can be returned. The probable date for the demonstration is early March.

The plan also includes replacing the tops of the poles with a different fixture.

The darkness problem on Pine Avenue -- according to sources familiar with lighting -- may not, in fact, be the fault of the current bulbs. At 175 watts each, the current Sentry metal halide bulbs are actually of higher wattage then the ones VBC is recommending.

Actually, a combination of blunders created the problem. The poles were installed too close to the street and are not tall enough, the bulbs were not angled properly and they have to shine through two panes of glass, some of which have become discolored.

The city should have done their lighting study before they did the conversion to the present poles in the late '90s. Meantime, a problem was identified in front of The Como, but there may be a relatively inexpensive fix: Change six bulbs, for about $6,600. The mayor wants to replace the entire street for $1.57 million.

Naturally, questions arise. Is this an open sesame? To take a small problem and turn it into one costing millions, and perhaps along the way pick up a tidy sum in campaign contributions, as has been the charge against Dyster -- that he does nothing, not even change a light bulb, unless he gets something in return for himself?

The mayor says he wants to be transparent. Sometimes one is inclined to say ironically that he is: From making his own street an historic district for historic reasons only -- yet he admits he wants to install a new roof on his home and through tax credits available for historic designation will get it done for free -- to appointing his campaign manager's wife to be city court judge and claiming it is not political, to overlooking qualified people in this city for all top positions and giving them to undistinguished, unqualified people from out of town at higher wages while blatantly disrespecting locals by saying there is no one in town as bright as his hires, to his plan to build an Underground Railroad Museum in a city that has no connection to the Underground Railroad in order, critics allege, to get the black vote, to giving nearly $200,000 to the Hard Rock Cafe, a billion-dollar corporation, to do concerts, while giving a mere $250,000 to the vital and hard-hit Memorial Medical Center, to giving out millions in consulting work to Buffalo contractors who have contributed to his campaign, he appears in every action to be self-serving and vainglorious. He seems to be transparent -- but not in the way he meant it. You be the judge.

Fruscione said, "Every single contract he's done is connected to his campaign headquarters. Every contract can be traced."

Then name one, Mr. Fruscione.

"His supporters are from Buffalo and are the kind of people who profit from design and consulting. Foit-Albert is one example," Fruscione said.

What did the mayor get from them?

Mark Storch is the director of business development for Foit-Albert Associates. Public records show that Storch gave Dyster $100 in September 2007; $125 in July 2007; $250 in October 2007; $50 in November 2007; $1,000 also in November 2007; $110 in October 2008; $500 in April 2008; $500 in September 2009; and $1,000 in June 2010.

Why an employee whose job it is to get business for a Buffalo architectural and engineering firm would donate more than $3,600 to the mayor of Niagara Falls is a reasonable question to ask.

We asked the mayor. He said he hardly knew a thing about it. He barely knew Mark Storch, he said.

"One hopes he wants good governance," the mayor said. "Perhaps he knows I will be active as mayor, and that will mean I will get more projects accomplished, and that will mean more work for everyone."

According to the mayor, Foit-Albert did get the contract to do the paving work on 10th and Cedar. One suspects that resulted in a profit for them that, it is fair to say, far exceeded the $3,600 Storch invested.

As for lights on Pine Avenue, the mayor intends to promote a large-scale replacement project. He has contracted a company to do the study that hopes to sell us lights. It is not good business. It is like asking a fox how to solve the problems of the henhouse, or asking a barber if you need a haircut.

The mayor seems inclined to work solely with VBC. He has opposition.

"We must and will get an RFP," said Fruscione. "We are not going to spend $1.5 million without getting bids, I can assure you."

Perhaps we could fix the present lights. Perhaps we could increase their wattage without getting expensive new fixtures and bulbs. Perhaps we only need to remedy the problem in front of The Como. We might consult our own city electrician. National Grid might weigh in.

It has been suggested we might solve much of the problem by eliminating one of the two panes of glass that are currently used. Another possibility is to see if we could change the beam angles of the present lights. Since many of the panes of glass are discolored and some bulbs are broken, a simple replacement might add light and save a million.

All this should be studied, but not by a company that wants to sell us lights. Fruscione is cynical about timing. And Fruscione more than anyone holds the mayor's feet to the fire.

He said tersely, "It's election year. Pine Avenue is known as 'Little Italy.' Italians make up 23 percent of voters. And new lights on Pine, courtesy the mayor ..."

Dyster declined to return multiple calls seeking additional comment on this story.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 18, 2011