Niagara Gazette

November 25, 2013

In head engineer's absence, OT costs build in department

By Justin Sondel justin.sondel@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The city’s engineering department employees have been working long hours since former City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka was fired.

The department employees have worked almost 890 hours of premium overtime earning a total of $47,670 since Skurka was fired by Mayor Paul Dyster in late April with senior engineer Robert Buzzelli, who has acted as supervisor of the department since Skurka was let go, taking the lion’s share of the bonus time, according to documents the Gazette obtained through a freedom of information law request.

Dyster said he knew there would be a jump in overtime after he fired Skurka, but he was alarmed by what he saw after asking his staff to gather the numbers.

“What we found there was that the use of overtime,” he said, “in particular for certain key personnel, was more than we had expected.”

The city paid Skurka $7,925 on June 8, his last check which included all vacation and sick pay, according to documents from the city’s human resources department.

Ruby Pulliam, the city’s equal employment opportunity officer, said Skurka is collecting unemployment though the city has appealed the department of labor’s decision to award him the benefit.

City council approved a request from Dyster to add $10,000 to the engineering department’s overtime budget during the May 28 council meeting.

In addition to the overtime, the city council approved a measure from Dyster allowing his staff to hire Greenman-Pedersen Inc. to act as the professional engineer on projects related to the city’s storm water pollution prevention plan, as Buzzelli is not a licensed professional engineer, a requirement of the state on most projects. The contract allows the consultant to perform up to $7,500 in work.

Dyster said he would like to hire more consultants to help reduce the workload for the engineering department until his administration is able to fill the position.

And even with a city engineer in place it still makes sense to hire consultants for specialized expertise, he added.

“It’s not an expense,” Dyster said. “It’s an investment and it results in the project actually being cheaper in the end, not more expensive.”  

BREAKING DOWN OVERTIME

Buzzelli, who has earned $38,586 on top of his $77,000 base salary for more than 650 hours of after-hours labor in Skurka’s absence, said that added responsibilities have made for long hours for department employees some weeks.

“I think the people here have an awful lot to be proud of,” he said. “They’ve worked a lot.”

In addition to Buzzelli’s overtime, Michael DeSantis earned $6,133, Mark Abramaytis earned $1,414 and Howard Skivington earned $1,108 in Skurka’s absence.

The department employees earned no overtime under Skurka this year, with all of the bonus pay coming after his termination.

Buzzelli said Skurka’s absence has caused a domino effect, with work being shuffled downward and everyone having to take on work that goes above their normal responsibilities.

“Everyone here deserves a great deal of credit for picking up a ball that could have easily been dropped,” Buzzelli said.

Dyster lauded the engineering department employees, saying they had done well in advancing projects in the absence of their department head.

“You’ve had a lot of people, sort of, doing a little bit more to make things work,” the mayor said. “Some of it has been compensated with overtime pay and some of it has not.”  

SEARCHING FOR AN ENGINEER

Dyster said he is working to fill the city engineer position as soon as possible, but faces several obstacles that may further delay the city’s quest to land a qualified candidate.

City council voted unanimously to overturn a Dyster veto to a salary cut to the city engineer position brought on by a council amendment to the mayor’s proposed 2013 budget that saw the position’s compensation fall from $96,000 a year to $78,000 a year.

Dyster has restored the salary in his proposed budget for 2014, but it seems as though that move will not find support on the council.

Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti told the Gazette she might support a slight increase in the salary but would not support fully restoring the line in an October interview, saying she felt the city could draw a qualified candidate from the sizable talent pool pushed out by the many area colleges and universities.

Dyster said he has talked with industry professionals and the $96,000 figure - which would be the top end of the salary range for the position - is necessary to attract an engineer qualified to handle the many larger-scale capital projects the city is engaged in and will be starting in the near future.

“We just felt, having talked to people in the market who know these things, that it was unlikely the position was going to get filled,” Dyster said in reference to the reduced salary.

A high turnover of city engineers — Dyster has seen four leave during his time as mayor — in what were at times contentious situations that were chronicled in the press could add to the challenge, Dyster said. 

POLITICS AT PLAY

In addition, the politicization of the position, with engineers being “attacked” publicly by council members regardless of the quality of their work, will mean the city might have to pay more for talent, he said.

Skurka told the Gazette he felt the cut to his salary was “retaliatory treatment” and that council members were targeting his pay because he would not bend to their will, particularly on a Pine Avenue light project that he and New York State Department of Transportation engineers deemed unnecessary and possibly dangerous in a December interview.

“We also heard that those things were going to mean you would have to pay top dollar to get a good candidate,” Dyster said. “People would feel it was kind of risky to come here.”

But Dyster believes the politicization of the position will no longer be a concern after the new year with Andrew Touma set to replace two-term Councilman Sam Fruscione after winning his seat in the fall elections.

Touma, along with Grandinetti and Councilman Charles Walker, campaigned as candidates willing to work with the mayor to move the city forward.

Fruscione, along with Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Councilman Robert Anderson Jr., have often opposed the Dyster’s initiatives, characterizing themselves as taxpayer watchdogs.

Dyster said that with a city council that has pledged to work with him a new city engineer would not have to worry about retaliation from the council.

“I think it will be less likely that someone would be badgered by the council, whether they deserved it or not,” he said.

Dyster said he and the council will need to work together to make sure the position is filled quickly, as the city is currently out of compliance with the city charter with no department head in place.

With the overtime costs in the engineering department in Skurka’s absence, Dyster thinks it will help him convince council members that the $96,000 in the line for the city engineer will help his administration find a good candidate and will save money in the end.

“We have to have a salary range that extends up to that number in order to have a good chance of getting a qualified candidate in a reasonable amount of time,” Dyster said.

Big Red Number $47K Amount of overtime paid to city engineers since late April

Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257