By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — On April 2, 2012, city lawmakers, with the backing of Mayor Paul Dyster’s administration, imposed a department-wide spending freeze on all non-essential items.
They made the move in response to a cash crunch brought on by a lack of incoming casino revenue.
The freeze didn’t cover expenses related to the travel account overseen by Mayor Paul Dyster.
Records on file with the city controller’s office show Dyster and his top aide, City Administrator Donna Owens, participated in state, national and international conferences at a cost to taxpayers in Niagara Falls through the end of last year.
Copies of records obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Gazette show the administration spent $2,925 on conference travel during the freeze in 2012 on various travel-related items, including road tolls, gasoline, conference registration fees and lodging.
In 2013, the practice has continued. So far this year, Dyster and Owens have spent $4,592 from the mayor’s travel account on a nine-day trip to Washington, D.C. and a two-day trip to Albany.
The dollar amounts aren’t large — but they are symbolic.
In a city strapped for cash, should top leaders be spending money on such things?
When it comes to cash spent on travel expenses for conferences, Dyster thinks so, especially when it leads to additional state and federal revenue flowing into the city for large-scale projects like the new North End train station.
“There’s some portion of this that has to be done,” he said.
During the freeze, Dyster attended one conference — the annual meeting for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative — in Quebec City, Canada. Charges from that trip account for over half of the travel spending out of the mayor’s office during last year’s spending freeze with costs that included an $847 stay at the Fairmont Le Chateau hotel and a $733 train ticket.
Owens attended one conference as well following the freeze last year. Records show she took a trip to the National Urban Fellows meeting in New York City at a total cost of $655.
Dyster considers attending national conferences as a necessary and important function of city government — when the city can afford to do so, at least. Dyster believes conference attendance can be a good way for the city of Niagara Falls to be recognized by key organizations and figures — those that can help the city acquire funding it needs for important projects.
Dyster said both he and Owens have been more strategic in their attending of conferences in recent years, noting they only traveled to conferences they considered directly tied to potential funding sources for the city or important information that will help the city solve specific issues, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the New York Conference of Mayors. At those events, Dyster said, administration officials have the opportunity to meet face to face with state and federal officials, most of whom they have limited or zero contact with otherwise.
“You attend a conference and you get a chance to talk to them one-on-one,” he said.
As an example of the type of value offered by such trips, Owens noted that her visit to the National Urban Fellows’ meeting helped the city secure the services of national fellow John Louis Bryant, who will perform communications work for the mayor’s office during the upcoming year at no cost to the city.
Dyster said conferences attended over a number of years helped the city secure a $16.5 million federal grant to be used in the construction of the new Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center. That kind of money, he said, has not flowed into Niagara Falls in the past, largely, he believes, because the city was not represented at the table.
“That was just a tremendous opportunity for us,” the mayor said. “I don’t think we would have been nearly as competitive in that process, had we not attended those conferences.”
Recognizing the city’s financial circumstances, Dyster said he and Owens stopped attending summer conferences for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and New York Conference of Mayors, which often take place in resort towns. They now only attend winter meetings for those organizations in Washington, D.C. and Albany respectively.
Dyster said that although he continued go to the conferences during the spending freeze he rarely used his per diem to buy food, and instead paid for his meals out of pocket.
“I try not to (use my per diem),” Dyster said. “If I can afford to pay for it, I do.”
During their January trip to Washington, D.C., Dyster and Owens attended the Mayors Innovation Project meeting, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an advocacy day for the gun control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns as well as the presidential inauguration. Records show the following expenses were charged to Dyster’s city-issued American Express card during that trip:
• $3,860 worth of lodging costs between the Topaz Hotel and the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C.
• $307.20 for two round-trip plane tickets from the Buffalo International Airport to Baltimore Washington International Airport for he and Owens.
• $103.31 for long-term parking at the Buffalo airport.
• $95 in cab fares.
• A $66 room service charge — included in the total cost of lodging listed above — for a breakfast at the Capitol Hilton that included a bagel with smoked salmon, a small pot of coffee and two juices. Dyster included a $10 tip on the bill which already had an 18 percent gratuity charge.
Dyster and Owens paid for their hotel stays from the end of the U.S. Conference of Mayors through the inauguration.
Dyster said part of the reason he and Owens were gone for nine days is that by combining so many events into one trip they were able to save on travel costs, having only bought one plane ticket each.
“Extending the trip actually gets you more for less travel costs,” he said.
Dyster said he ran for mayor on the premise that he would represent the city on a national level and at these conferences and events he gets the opportunity to interact with people at the highest levels of government to advocate for the Cataract City.
“I told people that I’m the person you want representing you in Albany and Washington,” Dyster said.
Dyster and Owens also attended Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State Address in Albany earlier this year. That trip cost taxpayers a total of $522 for gas, tolls and two rooms at the Hotel Albany.
Any notion that these trips are a vacation for he or Owens is inaccurate, Dyster said. Not only are they working to strengthen contacts and search out funding opportunities, they are handling city business over the phone and Internet.
“You never stop being the mayor,” Dyster said. “You’re on the clock 24/7.”
Councilman Sam Fruscione said he “respects and supports” the mayors interest in traveling to attend conferences like the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
However, Fruscione said he does not believe Owens should be attending them along with Dyster.
“Her job is not to travel,” he said. “It’s to run the day-to-day operations at City Hall.”
The administration will have less money to spend on travel for conferences in general this year. Membership dues for attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the St. Lawrence Seaway Cities Initiative were eliminated, saving a total of $9,300 in 2013.Editor's note: The Niagara Gazette is taking an in-depth look at the spending habits of top city officials. The third part of the series will appear in Thursday's edition and will take a closer look at another aspect of city spending -- meals enjoyed by city lawmakers and attorneys. Look for the entire series online.