By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Department heads and members of community groups in the city of Niagara Falls have been hearing for months now about the need to reign in municipal spending due to the ongoing casino cash crunch.
Records on file with the city controller’s office show the financial alarm sounded last spring hasn’t stopped Mayor Paul Dyster, City Administrator Donna Owens and a majority of city council members from using taxpayers to fund and buy meals.
Financial records obtained through Freedom of Information requests filed by the Niagara Gazette show Dyster and Owens spent $2,925 on conference travel during a department-wide freeze on discretionary spending imposed last April by the council. The freeze expired with the new budget took effect this year.
So far in 2013, records show 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.
On the council side, records show that between April 2 and Dec. 31, 2012 — the period covered by the spending freeze — four of the council’s five members and at least two representatives from the corporation counsel’s office spent $3,436 in taxpayer money on meeting-day meals.
Choolokian confirmed earlier this month that the practice of dining out on council-meeting days has continued so far in 2013. The bill for the most recent council meal — which took place on Feb. 4. — totaled $174.
Both administration and council officials note that their expenditures are covered under items contained within the municipal budget. They also stressed that administrative travel and funds set aside as part of the council’s “local meetings” budget line were not covered under last year’s freeze.
Both sides have cut back on their travel and meeting accounts. They do not appear ready to eliminate them in light of the city’s current financial situation.
Dyster considers attending conferences in places like Washington, D.C. and Albany worthwhile expenditures because he said they allow him and Owens to interact with high-ranking government officials at the state and federal levels.
He suggests that the city was not as well represented at such events under previous administrations, which he believes put Niagara Falls at a disadvantage.
“I could stay in city hall all day but I think that’s a one-way ticket to Palookaville,” Dyster said. “I told the people I was going to change it and I did.”
When it comes to the council’s dining habits, Choolokian argues that lawmakers’ taxpayer-funded meals are earned, noting that council members put in many hours for what amounts to part-time compensation.
Since the spending freeze, four of five council members have continued to attend the meals, including Choolokian, Sam Fruscione, Robert Anderson Jr. and Charles Walker. Two city attorneys and a Falls lawyer hired by the council as a consultant offering legal advice also frequently attend the sessions. Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti stopped attending the meetings once the freeze was imposed.
Choolokian and other council members noted that they did cut their local meetings budget — the budget line used to pay for the meals — by $2,000 during the budget amendment process last year, leaving $4,500 in the line for 2013.
“It doesn’t matter to me if we get or not, but we’re underpaid for what we do,” Choolokian said.
Choolokian — who joined Anderson and Fruscione in voting to cut city funds to the Niagara Falls Block Club Council, the Niagara Beautification Commission and the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center earlier this month — said he doesn’t see why the long-standing tradition of dining out between sessions should end.
“This is how it’s been for 50 or 60 years,” Choolokian said. “I don’t make the rules.”
Dyster said he and Owens have limited their trips to winter-only meetings for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the New York Conference of Mayors, but believes discontinuing conference travel altogether would put the city in more financial peril.
Though the city is facing difficult financial times, Dyster said opportunities for the city to bring in more revenue through grants and improve its financial standing could be missed if the trips were brought to an end.
“That would be shortsighted and foolish,” Dyster said.
The chairman said he supports Dyster’s travel to targeted events, but with the budget crunch he doesn’t feel as though Owens should be accompanying the mayor on the trips.
“With the hole that we’re in I think we should be bringing in the reigns,” Choolokian said. “I don’t think she should go.”
Dyster said that Owens helps him get the maximum value out of the trips by attending sessions when he has a conflict and doubling the city’s ability to network.
“You need some kind of staff if you’re going to accomplish something at these conferences,” Dyster said.
In addition, Owens has valuable connections through her previous employment with bigger cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Dyster said.
Owens said on top of networking at the events she also helps coordinate meetings with key officials for Dyster at the conferences.
She said that most cities — large and small — have multiple people at the conferences.
“(The mayors) know that they can’t be in all places at all times,” Owens said.
Owens said while the city needs to be strategic about how it spends money, staying “in a vacuum” in Niagara Falls does nothing to help the city grow and return to economic prosperity.
“Especially when you are having tough financial times you need to network harder and find other resources harder to replace what you may be losing in a deficit situation,” Owens said.
City Spending series The Niagara Gazette is taking an in-depth look at the spending habits of top city officials. Wednesday's story will focus on expenditures charged to the city by Mayor Paul Dyster and City Administrator Donna Owens during recent trips to attend state and national conferences.