By Paul Dyster
Niagara Gazette — Recent negative campaign mailers attacking Councilman Charles Walker — one paid for by the Republican State Committee and one by the allied Niagara County Independence Party — contain the allegation that he supports $1.1 million in “raises” for either “key mayoral staffers” (that’s the Republican mailer) or “the top political cronies in city hall” (that’s the Independence Party version). As you probably assumed when you received these mailers, that isn’t true. It’s a lie.
Nevertheless, I was curious to try to figure out where these spin-masters came up with the number “$1.1 million.” So I did a little research. Here’s what I found.
The bi-weekly line for wages in the proposed 2014 budget is indeed up over 2013. Where does that come from? First, about $294,000 is for contractual longevity and step increases. These are non-discretionary increases contained in the various union contracts that were voted on by City Council and that, in the case of the public safety unions, may have been the result of a binding arbitration decision.
Second, $168,839 is to restore two positions that were cut from the 2013 budget — a budget done under duress because of the lack of casino revenues. The first position is that of city purchasing agent. When our long-time purchasing agent retired, we tried to do without for a year as an economy measure. The rest of the staff labored hard, but the experiment didn’t work. So we need to fill the position for 2014. The second position is that of senior business development director — the person who reviews applications for economic development grants and loans. This position, too, has been vacant since a retirement. Guess what? It’s paid with casino revenues; it doesn’t even impact taxes.
Then $63,301 is to restore cuts that were made in the salaries of two key positions during the casino impasse: the city administrator and the city engineer. The city administrator’s salary was negotiated after she was selected by a neutral panel following a national search. She’s nowhere near the highest paid city employee, and most school principals and many administrators at the Board of Education get paid as much or more.
The city engineer’s position is vacant, but research suggests we have to restore the salary paid to the last occupant in order to get a qualified candidate; the position is stipulated in the City Charter and cannot be left vacant indefinitely. $4,293 is to bring the salary of the administrative assistant to the city administrator in line with that of the assistant to the mayor, as has traditionally been the case. (The city council pays their assistant more, but he’s a man, whereas the other two are women. Does that seem fair?)
Overtime for all departments (including police, fire and DPW) is up $517,498 from what was budgeted for 2013. But wait a minute ... 2010 overtime was $2.5 million; 2011 and 2012 were $2.3 million; and then council cut overtime drastically to $1.5 million for 2013. I said at the time this would not be enough; police overtime especially was cut to an unrealistically low number. Council countered by created a “contingency account” (basically a slush fund) that was used to cover the mistakes made in the final budget they passed. What is total overtime year-to-date? About $2.5 million with two months to go! What did I propose for 2014? $2.0 million —up half a million from the unrealistic 2013 number, but less than what we actually spent in any of the last four years.
The same is basically true for wages for temporary and seasonal personal. I proposed a little over $500,000 for 2014, which is up substantially ($183,000) from last year’s unrealistically low $318,000, but still less than the $550,000 we spent in 2010. And remember — last year, because of the casino cash problem, was a low point for spending on popular, job-producing programs like Clean Neighborhoods and ZOOM (which is funded with casino revenues). Those programs are included in the 2014 proposal along with recreation, parks, streets, etc.
So, after all that, where are the alleged “raises” for “political cronies?” Out of the entire $1.1 million “increase” in wages alleged in the negative mailers, a grand total of $41,000 is proposed for stipends.
These are people whose hard work and dedication save the taxpayer money, and they deserve a modest reward. They are not my “cronies;” I don’t, in fact, have any “cronies” that I know of ... And that’s $41,000 — not $1.1 million — in a budget of over $80 million.
Just thought you’d like to know the facts — and the numbers don’t lie.
One other matter: one of the other campaign mailers paid for the Republican State Committee — this one for council candidate Vinnie Sandonato — alleges that “Niagara Falls elected officials can recieve (sic) FREE life-time health care with as little as one year of service. They pay nothing and taxpayers are stuck with the bill.” Could this possibly be true? I checked.
Elected officials, like other city employees, qualify for retiree health insurance based on their age plus years of service equaling or exceeding 70 years total. So it sounds like someone aged 69 could run for office, serve a single year, then get lifetime health benefits, right? Well, they could — except that the law was changed not to include anyone elected after Jan. 1, 2008. So the loophole has been closed for over five years. So someone either didn’t do their homework or is lying outright. You decide for yourself.
Political insiders call this the “silly season” based on all the lies and misinformation that gets spread through attack mailers and the tabloid press. Frankly, I’m sick of it all, and I hope you are too. Go to the polls Tuesday and elect three people who’ve taken the high road throughout this campaign instead of stooping to lies and deception: Kristen Grandinetti, Andy Touma and Charles Walker.
Paul Dyster is the mayor of Niagara Falls.Paul Dyster is the mayor of Niagara Falls