Dyster Using Uncertain $12.3 Million to Keep Status Quo at City Hall

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By: Nicholas D. D’Angelo

Managing Editor

The timing couldn’t have been better.

Days before Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster was to unveil his proposed budget for 2019, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he planned to propose in his NYS budget to the legislature that they approve “advancing” up to $12.3 million of future casino revenue to the City of Niagara Falls.

It was a fine public gesture from the governor – during his election year – even if his proposal is not approved by the legislature.

Yet for Dyster and company, it was akin to Happy Days.

For several months prior to Cuomo’s announcement, word out of City Hall was this was going to be Dyster’s “smallest budget ever.”

City Administrator Nick Melson indicated there could be many city positions cut, along with a substantial reduction of expenses from the public safety budget. There were assurances that in these lean times there would be “no pay raises” for any member of the administration.

This changed the moment Dyster found out about Cuomo’s proposal and – ignoring the fact that Cuomo said he would propose to the legislature that the city get “up to” $12.3 million – which means the legislature might approve less [or even nothing], Dyster put the entire $12.3 million into his 2019 budget. This allowed him to not cut a single position from City Hall; as well as give pay raises to numerous individuals and add a raft of other new expenditures.

Of the five councilman, only Kenny Tompkins questioned whether it was wise for Dyster to put $12.3 million into a city budget when there is – in fact – no guarantee the City will get the money.  Tompkins wrote to the New York State Comptroller’s office asking them to review it.

Tompkins explained what should have been evident to all the council: “Even if Governor Cuomo includes [the $12.3 million] in his proposed budget for 2019, that does not guarantee it will pass the legislature.”

In response to Tompkins’ concerns, Dyster released a statement that is misleading and exaggerated.

“Governor Cuomo made a commitment to the people of the City of Niagara Falls guaranteeing the advancement of the casino revenue owed to the City, and directed his administration to send a letter confirming this commitment, which has been provided to council.

Councilman Ken Tompkins is grandstanding in a gubernatorial election year for his Republican party bosses.

If he is serious about not using casino revenue in the 2019 budget, then he should present the administration with a list of layoffs and necessary tax increase to compensate for the loss of those revenues.

While the administration shares the council’s objectives of reducing the use of casino revenues in the general fund over time, to try to do so in a single budget cycle would have catastrophic results.

Councilman Tompkins owes it to our brave first responders and tireless public works employees to look them in the eye and explain that he would prefer to play partisan politics with their livelihoods rather than do his job.”

Let’s break down parts of Dyster’s statements that are truly misleading.

Dyster: “Governor Cuomo made a commitment to the people of the City of Niagara Falls guaranteeing the advancement of the casino revenue owed to the City…”

Cuomo cannot commit money to the city. He can only propose it in his 2019 budget. It’s up to the legislature to approve expenditures.  

Dyster: Councilman Ken Tompkins is grandstanding in a gubernatorial election year for his Republican party bosses.

Isn’t it possible that Tompkins is genuinely concerned about Dyster’s extravagant budget and his proposal the include the use of state money the city may not receive?  Perhaps it is Cuomo who is grandstanding in an election year.  In this respect, Dyster too may be grandstanding for his party boss – Cuomo. 

Dyster: If he is serious about not using casino revenue in the 2019 budget, then he should present the administration with a list of layoffs and necessary tax increase to compensate for the loss of those revenues.

But there are no casino revenues. The Senecas have not agreed to pay a single dime to the city or state. Why? Because Cuomo forgot to put any payment to the state [or the city] into the compact renewal with the Senecas, and Dyster failed to review the compact to ensure that payment to the city was included. He relied solely on Cuomo’s word – much as he is doing now – that Cuomo will take care of everything. 

Councilman Tompkins owes it to our brave first responders and tireless public works employees to look them in the eye and explain that he would prefer to play partisan politics with their livelihoods rather than do his job.”

This is where Dyster is truly dishonest and unfair. He brings in the “brave first responders” and “tireless public works employees” [are they really that “tireless?”]. Talk about “hollering before you’re hurt” —  Tompkins didn’t mention cutting first responders or public works.  He only spoke of the extravagance of Dyster’s budget and his potentially improper dependence in his proposed 2019 budget on state money that may never be received.

But Dyster raises the specter of hurting “brave first responders” and “tireless public works employees”.   This is Dyster playing the politics of fear to obscure the fact that he playing fast and loose with public money.

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Let’s also examine the actual letter from Governor Cuomo’s administration:

“To provide certainty for your local budget deliberations, please be advised that the Executive Budget for State Fiscal Year 2019-20 will include authorization for the State to advance up to $12.3. Million – the estimated amount of Seneca revenue that would otherwise be received for city purposes in 2019 – to the City of Niagara Falls….”

The “Executive Budget” is the budget the governor proposes. It has to be approved by the legislature. Please note, as Tompkins did, that the governor is saying that his proposal is that the city will get “up to” $12.3 million. The legislature may not approve the full $12.3 million. They may disallow it altogether or approve only part of it. 

Yet Dyster is including the entire $12.3 million in his proposed budget for 2019.  Imagine owning a business where you allocate $12.3 million – when you might get only $10 million, or $4 million or nothing at all  – to balance your budget.

Does that sound like smart financial planning?

A number of other municipalities also hope to receive Seneca casino funds. Buffalo and the Niagara County have now sent requests asking Governor Cuomo to propose to the legislature that they get advances on their hoped-for casino money for 2019 as well.

Imagine, you are an assemblyman or senator with no connection to Niagara Falls. Won’t one of the first questions you’ll ask yourself is where’s the equity and fairness in Niagara Falls receiving their share of “advanced” casino payments but not other municipalities?

And why is it my constituents’ responsibility to bail out Niagara Falls?

And suppose the Senecas never agree to pay a dime to the state [or any municipality]? Governor Cuomo failed to negotiate a payment to the state – Mayor Dyster failed to ensure that his city got a dime – so now why is it the legislature’s responsibility to pay for his bloated budget?

Dyster is surely being disingenuous by presenting the $12.3 million as a sure thing.

Finally, Dyster used the hoped-for $12.3 million as an excuse to not cut expenses in City Hall whatsoever.  Niagara Falls is currently in a $13.9 million budget deficit and Dyster’s proposed budget for 2019 did nothing to address it.

He did not cut any positions from City Hall and he did not reduce pay for any employees. In fact, a lot of them received a raise.

So, in the end, if the city does not get the full $12.3 million, who will Dyster look to alleviate the deficit that the City will face in 2019?

That would be you, the residents of Niagara Falls.

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