Niagara Gazette — Mayor Paul Dyster is pushing for the city council to uphold two key vetoes, both of which failed during last year’s budget process.
Dyster has vetoed a cut to City Administrator Donna Owens’ salary and the elimination of a director of business development position.
Last year the council voted unanimously to cut Owens’ pay by almost 40 percent, reducing her salary from $110,000 to $70,000.
Dyster attempted to reverse the amendment, but the council again voted unanimously in overriding the veto.
Dyster restored her salary in his proposed budget for 2014. The salary was again cut, this time to $75,000, through a council amendment in a 4-0 vote. Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. was ill and did not attend the special meeting where budget amendments were adopted.
Dyster, in an written explanation of the veto, argues that cutting the administrator’s salary is unfair in that Owens negotiated the salary in good faith before leaving a position in city government in Atlanta and relocating to Niagara Falls.
“Not restoring the originally negotiated salary would represent reneging on the commitment that was made at the time that the current administrator was recruited as part of a national search, threatening her continuity in office and raising possible legal issues for the city,” Dyster said in the attached note.
In addition, the city administrator, who is one of only a handful of African American women in top administrative roles in the city,was hired at a comparable salary to scores of other top employees working for the city and the school district, Dyster said.
“For the record, 50 employees of the board of education earn over $100,000 annually for a total of over $5.8 million,” Dyster said.
During a phone interview Tuesday, Dyster said he worries that other college-educated African American women in the city will view the salary cut as a signal that they do not have room to advance their careers in Niagara Falls.
“I think it’s an opportunity to send a signal that I, as mayor, want to send,” he said. “That is that, in terms of our hiring and promotion here, we’re friendly to women, we’re friendly to minorities and we’re friendly to minority women.”
Owens said she feels that her salary should be restored to what was negotiated when she took the job, a figure that is below the average salary for city administrators — the New York Conference of Mayors reports administrators average $119,000 — across the state.
“I just feel that was the salary that was negotiated when I decided to come here,” Owens said.
Owens said she is glad that Dyster has pushed to have the salary restored at every opportunity.
“The mayor has been very supportive and I appreciate it,” she said.
Dyster has also attempted to restore a business development director position removed from his proposed budget through an amendment that passed three to one, with Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti casting the only dissenting vote.
The director would head the city’s economic development office.
The position, which carries a $58,880 salary, is essential at this point in time because the city is now gaining interest from outside investors, with the state, through its local development arm USA Niagara Development Corp., focusing on and incentivizing development in downtown Niagara Falls, Dyster said.
“Given both the state’s emphasis on Niagara Falls economic development projects and the restoration of casino funds as a result of Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo’s successful negotiation with the Seneca Nation of Indians, it is critical for this department to be at full staff at this time in order to effectively administer what we hope to be a large number of ongoing projects,” Dyster said.
The position has been vacant since Fran Iusi retired in January of 2012.
Since then staffers Clara Dunn and Tom Tedesco have been taking on extra responsibilities in the absence of a director.
Council members, including Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian, have argued in the past that Dunn and Tedesco have been able keep the department working efficiently and there is no need to hire on a director.
Dyster said that too much responsibility has fallen onto the staffers who, while doing a great job at recruiting and advocating for businesses to apply to the NFC Development Corp. - the city’s banking arm - for grants and loans, cannot simultaneously act as the executive who may have to make the tough decision of turning a business away.
“We’ve got some good people in economic development,” Dyster said. “We just, at the moment, don’t have enough of them, and that’s a really key position.”Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257