City Rolls Through Casino Windfall in Short Order

By: Mike Hudson

It was just last August. The city received $89 million in overdue payments on its share of revenue from the Seneca Niagara Casino, money that had been held up because of a dispute between the Seneca Nation of Indians and New York State.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster was elated.

“This is one of the happiest days of my life and, I’m sure, for the city of Niagara Falls,” the mayor said.

Dyster said the city tried to remain neutral in the dispute and maintain relations with both the Senecas and state, who he described as “friends” of the city.

“It hurts us to see our friends fighting,” Dyster said. “So we tried to play whatever role we could to [help] facilitate a negotiated settlement.”

But Dyster’s nemesis, State Sen. George Maziarz, had some concerns. He was worried that city officials would blow through the money like so many drunken sailors rather than investing in programs that would create jobs and give a boost to the city’s moribund economy.

Maziarz immediately set up a website to detail expenditures coming out of the casino windfall.

And events have proven Maziarz correct. Today, just nine months after the $89 million check arrived, just $29 million remains. Not a single private sector job was created with the $60 million that has been spent, taxes remain outrageously high, and the future of Niagara Falls looks as bleak as it did prior to the settlement.

What happened to the money?

To begin with, $25,363,591 was owed to various entities connected with the city and written into the contract with the state as beneficiaries of the Seneca compact. Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital, the Niagara Falls City School District, the Niagara Falls Tourism & Convention Bureau and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which operates Niagara Falls International Airport, all fall into this category.

Additionally, the scandal-plagued Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Commission-which has yet to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars it received previously-raked in a whopping $1,750,000 to continue to try and find some scant evidence of a link between the city and the pre-Civil War organization that helped slaves escape from the South for freedom in Canada.

Thus far, no unequivocal link has been uncovered.

Another $4,413,777 was used to pay for road improvement projects dating back to 2009.

But what about the rest of the money, you might ask. What happened to the other $40,384,932?

Here’s where the drunken sailors come in.

A total of $394,000 was used to help pay for Dyster’s disastrous Lewiston Road project and a similar amount was handed over to the city’s largely discredited NFC Development Corp. to provide grants and loans to small businesses owned by Dyster campaign contributors and other political insiders.

The bill came due on a mundane rock concert Dyster staged two New Year’s Eve’s ago which cost $50,000 while a blues festival held on Old Falls Street was a relative bargain at $20,000.

The Hard Rock Cafe’s concert series, which primarily benefited the Hard Rock Cafe, cost taxpayers here $179,000, and change orders on the refurbishing of the Hyde Park Ice Pavilion burned up another $185,589. The dedication ceremony for the Legends Basketball Court somehow managed to cost $30,000 as well.

The Desman Associates parking study, which ran to around 5,000 words spread out over 22 pages due mainly to the use of an overly large typeface and plenty of pictures, cost $47,330, and the cringe worthy “Holiday Market” of 2011 was a black hole that sucked down another $225,000 of your money.

Replacing two light poles in the city lot next to Wrobel Towers cost $90,000 and putting a flashing light on Pine Avenue in front of the Como Restaurant ran another $80,500. Phase III construction at Dyster’s unopened Whirlpool Street train station burned through another $350,000, and the need for outside consulting engineers because of Dyster’s inability to find a real city engineer required the outlay of another $94,000.

The Aquarium got $30,000. The Niagara State 125th Park Parade got $12,284. Niagara Rises Homecoming Party got $7,500. (This was paid for a 2010 event, and  the city reimbursed itself) Oakwood Cemetery got $10,000.

Nine new Ford Escapes for the city’s Code Enforcement Department cost $210,595, and something called the New Jerusalem Center got $90,000 to do who knows what with.

Hiring a consultant to look at the existing locker rooms at the Ice Pavilion cost another $94,500, and removing and replacing trees at various locations around the city resulted in a bill of $92,495.

About $550,000 went to the owner of the Holiday Inn Hotel Downtown so he could improve his hotel at your expense.

The Niagara Military Affairs Council picked up $40,000.

A hundred thousand here and a hundred thousand there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

And for the record, this recent spending of some $40 million in discretionary spending is on top of the $54 million the Dyster administration spent in Casino money prior to the latest $89 million windfall, with equally dismal results.

A total of $94 million has been spent under Dyster’s direction.

This city could have been rebuilt for this amount had it been spent on serious things other than buying votes and pandering to everyone.

“It’s a disgrace,” Maziarz told the Niagara Falls Reporter. “[Niagara] Falls city officials are giving drunken sailors a bad name.”