Niagara Gazette

September 3, 2013

Council majority tables motion allowing for federal reimbursement for train station work

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls City Council will take more time to look at an agreement that would see the city reimbursed for work performed on the intermodal transportation center project near the Whirlpool Bridge.

The council majority — Chairman Glenn Choolokian, Councilman Sam Fruscione and Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. — voted to table a resolution that would give Mayor Paul Dyster's administration authority to submit paperwork and sign agreements required to be reimbursed by the federal government for work already performed by the city's engineering consultant on the project Wendel Duchscherer at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Choolokian said he wants Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson to review the document and report back before the council would vote to approve the measure.

"We just got this thing in our packet," Choolokian said. "I'm going to talk to our corporation counsel this week."

Council agenda packets are made available the Wednesday prior to each council meeting. The council was on recess during August and many of the council members choose to vacation during that month. Choolokian returned from a family vacation on Sunday.

"I just want to make sure I know what I'm voting on," he said.

Susan Sherwood, a representative from Wendel Duchscherer, attended the council meeting and explained that the purpose of the resolution was to begin the process of recouping federal funds — the feds are paying for 80 percent of the train station construction — for work that has already been performed.

"We're under contract right now and there are state funds that are already obligated," Sherwood said. "This is just (an agreement) that came trickling in a little later."

Wendel has almost $1 million in work already performed. The company has been waiting to bill the city, in part, as a courtesy to the city while it dealt with the financial strains caused by the dispute between the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York state over provisions of the 2002 gaming compact the Senecas say were being violated, Sherwood said.

The company will now bill the city and the tabled measure would allow the city to be repaid after it pays the engineer, she added.

"Right now I'm out almost $1 million in accounts receivable which they owe me whether they get federally reimbursed or not," Sherwood said.

The decision to table the agreement, which is between the city and the New York State Department of Transportation, has no bearing on whether the engineering firm will charge the city but does put the city at risk of losing the federal reimbursement, Sherwood said.

"Essentially what they just did was jeopardize their federal reimbursement," she said.

Sherwood sent emails to the council members three times in August offering to explain the agreement, which has been available to the council for six months, if any members had questions, she said.

The council has recently passed similar contracts to be reimbursed for projects like the Buffalo Avenue road project without raising concerns.

The contract is a standard and routine agreement that allows the federal government, which cannot give funding directly to municipalities, to pass the funds through a state agency, Sherwood said.

"This is a standard DOT road public works contract," she said. "They sign these every year. There is nothing in there that's different from any other contract.

Choolokian said he wanted someone who works for the city, as opposed to the company the city is paying, to detail the contract for he and his colleagues.

"I don't need an explanation from the company," Choolokian said. "I need and explanation from our lawyer. He works for us."

Councilman Charles Walker and Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti voted no to tabling the agreement.

The train station has been a contentious project in the past with members of the council majority questioning the validity of spending money on a building that the city will have to pay to maintain once complete.

The council majority has tabled measures related to the train station before, but most of those measures had funding allocations tied to them, while the agreement tabled at Tuesday's council meeting would see the city recoup money.

The council will vote on a measure that would allocate funding for the city's matching fund for the construction of the project — about $3 million set to come out of casino revenues — likely to come up this fall.

Walker said he does not understand why the members of the council majority want to "stop progress" on the train station project.

"It's frustrating because, when you look at it, here is a project where funding is already in place," Walker said. "This project is ready to go, so what are your issues here on this project?"

Walker said the "games" being played by the council majority reinforce a negative image that the city is trying to shake.

"This project says,'the city of Niagara Falls can't get something done,' " Walker said. "We've given you a check and you still can't get the project done."

INSIDE • Progress being made on Hamister hotel project. LOCAL, xx

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