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Niagara Falls 2016: another year older, deeper in debt

BY MIKE HUDSON

2016, the year that began with Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster taking the oath of office for a historic third term, was in many ways a watershed year for the city.Numerous websites including MyLife.comNeighborhoodScout.com and City-Data.com continued to assert that Niagara Falls was the “Most Dangerous City in New York” and one of the 50 most dangerous in the nation.

And, according to a study by Market Watch published in January, New York is the most highly taxed state in the nation. A study done last year by the Empire Center for Public Policy showed Niagara County to be the most highly taxed county in the state.

Far and away, Niagara Falls homeowners pay the highest taxes per $1,000 of property value in the county, which would make the city the most highly taxed municipality in the entire United States.

Being the most dangerous and highly taxed municipality in the state is no small accomplishment. Dyster can also boast of harboring more registered sex offenders per capita than any other municipality, and having one of the highest — if not the highest — percentage of residents collecting some form of public assistance.

But there was more, so much more to 2016, the ninth year of the Dyster regime, to remember. Let’s look at some highlights!

THE TRAIN STATION

Dyster spent $44 million in public money to build a gigantic new train station on Whirlpool Street in the city’s desolate North End. It was supposed to open in the spring but didn’t, then in the summer.

It finally did get opened but no trains would come to it because Dyster forgot to get a contract with Amtrak to provide service to his train station

The station was supposed to include an Underground Railroad Heritage Museum that would draw tourists from all over the world who burned with the desire to learn about the flight of former slaves from the Confederate States to freedom in Canada in the years prior to the Civil War, an operation that the city of Niagara Falls had no provable association with.

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Some wondered, how do you open a history museum when not a single artifact had been acquired or display fabricated? Despite the fact that the city’s Underground Railroad Commission has been given $2.45 million in casino cash, it remains unknown what – if anything – they have done with the money.

Other than issuing a preliminary report shortly after the formation of the commission that failed to establish any unequivocal link between the Underground Railroad and what is now the City of Niagara Falls, little has been heard of the shadowy organization.

City Planner Thomas DeSantis touted the museum’s potential as a revenue source. The museum would not turn people away and will likely be free for schoolchildren, he said, but officials want visitors to see the museum as something of value and be willing to pay something for it.

For Dyster, it has never been about the destination but the journey. Which is why, since taking office in January 2008, the city has been subjected to numerous and lengthy forays into the unknowable unknown, for the most part without any measurable result aside from money squandered and energy spent.

Dyster went ahead and spent $44 million of other people’s money to build a facility for Amtrak that the money losing railroad had shown no interest whatsoever in occupying.

Since 1978, Amtrak officials had been content with the 800 square feet they operate on Willard Avenue near Lockport Road. Peak traffic at the Niagara Falls station averages 30 passengers an hour, an event that occurs no more than four times each day. The smallish waiting room, about the size of a dentist’s office, never lacks for seating, even with the hustle and bustle of 15 people getting on a train as another 15 disembark.

There was never any likelihood whatsoever that Amtrak would be renting the entire 22,000 square foot new train station. The heavily subsidized and money losing passenger rail line’s policy is to rent just enough square footage needed to service the passengers using the station, currently well under 100 a day.

The new station is about 10 times larger than what Amtrak would require based on ridership figures.

It wasn’t until November, months after the station’s “grand opening,” that the city even managed to get a contract with the railroad to use it. Amtrak will reportedly pay $172,800 a year under the contract, which won’t even cover routine maintenance. But even that number seems like yet another Dyster deception. No one – including the chucklehead council who voted to approve the lease – has actually seen the lease other than Dyster. There is little doubt that the $172,000 figure is a projection based on unreachable goals, and the real rent that Amtrak will pay will be substantially lower than Dyster tells his rather stupid council, and the true expenses of running the station will be substantially higher.

Meantime the giant station remains practically empty.

Why?

Because there are only about 45 people per day who take trains coming and another 45 people who take a train going.

The size or beauty of a train station has little or nothing to do with people’s decision to take a train.

Nothing has been heard of the Underground Railroad museum in months.

SEX OFFENDERS

The number of registered sex offenders living in Niagara Falls has taken a sharp spike in 2016, shooting up from 164 in December 2015 to 190 by May and 200 as of this week. That’s 40 child molesters, rapists and other perverts for every 10,000 residents.

If anyone should get credit for the city’s pervert population explosion it is Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, who, during his first term in office, said famously that sexual predators “have to live somewhere,” as he defended a dilapidated Niagara Street rooming house full of sex offenders from a crowd of angry parents and school district personnel at the nearby Niagara Street School.

When Dyster took office, there were just 70 registered sex offenders in the city, and in all likelihood that number will be tripled by the end of his current term, even as the general population of the city as a whole has declined by thousands.

dyster2There are currently no women on the list of registered sex offenders in Niagara Falls. So, by eliminating that half of the population from the comparison rolls, your likelihood of rubbing elbows with a convicted sex offender shoots up to an astonishing 1 in 129 men. That would constitute a small crowd at a local night club or a portion of the lunchtime rush at McDonald’s.

Since no one will hire them and their families often don’t want to have anything to do with them, registered sex offenders are completely dependent upon the various social services agencies that serve the Niagara Falls community for food, clothing, shelter, medical care and psychological counseling.

They represent the top of the pyramid in an economy that is becoming increasingly based on the care and feeding of those who cannot or will not care for and feed themselves.

GRANDINETTI’S CAT PATROL

But for Dyster’s main cheerleader on the City Council, Kristen Grandinetti, the population explosion of registered sex offenders wasn’t as troubling as that among harmless little kitty cats.

In April, the Niagara Falls City Council tabled legislation introduced by the clueless councilwoman that would have tightened regulations for cat owners in the city, and made feeding a stray cat a criminal offense.

Grandinetti’s bill sought to amend Chapter 701 of the Codified City Ordinances, which governs ownership of dogs, cats and other animals.

Most of the changes she recommended had to do with cats, however.

“No cat shall be fed, sheltered, maintained or harbored that is not domesticated,” Grandinetti’s proposed new rules stated. “No person shall harbor, maintain or feed any unlicensed or stray cat.”

Under her proposed legislation, cats would no longer be permitted to “interfere with garbage receptacles,” or to “defecate, urinate or dig” on any property not belonging to the cat owner.

Exactly what constitutes a “domesticated” cat is not spelled out, but Grandinetti’s ordinance went so far as to provide fines and even threaten jail time for violators.

Grandinetti’s quickly became the target of harassment and threats from cat lovers across the country, following an article about it in the Niagara Falls Reporter.

“Sometimes a conflict has to occur before a solution can be found,” said Grandinetti, who is no stranger to conflict. Her sometimes bizarre Facebook postings alone have generated reams of newspaper copy.

She filed a police report over harassing messages that encouraged her to “drown your children” and “kill yourself,” delivered both through Facebook and to her personal email account.

The violent remarks directed at Grandinetti were delivered by individuals digitally, and it is uncertain who the distributor, or distributors, of the messages were. According to the report filed with the Niagara Falls Police Department, Grandinetti claimed “aggravated harassment.

“I would like to see you drugged and (urinated) on,” one message said.

“Do us a favor and kill yourself,” read another.

A majority of her more sensible colleagues moved to table Grandinetti’s proposal before it saw the light of day.

Ali Hansen, in a Reporter Guest View, cast a bemused eye on the silly show.

“In reading about Council member Kristen Grandinetti’s boneheaded idea about fining or jailing people who are taking humane steps to manage the area’s feral cat population, I couldn’t help but think that it’s too bad we can’t trap, spay and release Grandinetti somewhere other than Niagara Falls,” he wrote. “That way she won’t be such a nuisance to her neighbors. And by the way, if anybody bothers to keep feeding her, be sure to slap them with a fine and throw them in jail.”

Grandinetti persevered, reintroducing the proposed ordinance again and again to her reluctant colleagues.

“I don’t understand the hesitation,” said councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti at Monday’s city council meeting just before changes to the city animal code regarding “community” cats got tabled.

Finally, at the end of June, a visibly agitated Grandinetti watched helplessly this week as her colleagues shot her controversial anti-cat legislation down for the third time, despite what she claimed were Herculean efforts on her part to make the proposed law more acceptable.

She gave up her crusade and went back to posting on Facebook.

WHAT A WASTE

The dumping of potentially hazardous and even radioactive waste by the city was on ongoing story in 2016, the focus of two separate Reporter investigations.

City officials attempted to address concerns in the wake of a June expose in The Reporter on the creation of a radioactive waste dump on North Avenue. Approximately 100 tons of radioactive soil were excavated during the construction of the city’s new train station and dumped at the North Ave. site which sits about 75 yards from the new train station.

How dangerous were the materials stored at the dump?

A tall, padlocked chain link fence was built around it, festooned with warning signs.

“DANGER HARD HATS, SAFETY GLASSES, SAFETY SHOES REQUIRED IN THIS AREA AT ALL TIMES,” one stated.

Another advised, “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY CALL 911 FIRE RESCUE POLICE.”

A third sign warned of the presence of “RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL” and reads: “Caution Radioactive Materials Area.”

The Reporter visited the site and found that the gate of the fence had fallen down, and that large holes and tears appeared in the plastic safety sheeting used to cover the radioactive waste. In some sections, the plastic sheeting had blown off and the area was soaked with groundwater.

The fence was repaired after the story was published, and Thomas J. DeSantis, the city’s acting director of planning, environmental and economic development, responded to media and public inquiries downplaying the safety issue.

“It’s not contaminating anything, the levels are so low that they don’t cause a health threat,” said DeSantis. “It’s safe to anybody walking by.

In August, the radioactive material suddenly disappeared. The pile had sat on an abandoned North Avenue lot for more than a year– near a densely populated part of the city. The Dyster administration made no official announcement of its removal or where it went.

In April, following another expose in the Reporter, the NYS DEC ordered the city to close down and clean up an illegal dump near the Hyde Park Golf Course off Porter and New Road that the city has been using for years to dispose of street debris, dead animals, tree stumps, building materials and other detritus.

The makeshift landfill – formerly wetlands – has not been legally sanctioned and does not have containment mechanisms (like liners or containment walls) that landfills are required to possess.

The property was originally owned by the New York State Power Authority, but was deeded to the City after the 2007 relicensing of the power project.

Following the Reporter publication with pictures showing the site – said to be used for only compost – filled with all manner of illegally dumped street material including needles, used condoms, plastic, concrete, metal, and more, The DEC inspected the site and made tests.

Within three weeks the site was closed and later concrete bollards have been installed by the city to prevent the site from being used.

What the cost has been to city taxpayers for the Dyster administration’s negligence in the creation and removal of these illegal dumps is anyone’s guess.

BIG BUCKS

A portion of local tax burden here goes to help pay the salaries of 69 city employees who make $100,000 or more a year, according to the public service website SeethroughNY.net.

Indeed, the impoverished City of Niagara Falls is rich with top earners, most of them with the police and fire departments.

With 49,468 residents as of the 2013 US census estimate, the proportion is high compared to other cities. For every 717 city residents, there is one city employee who earns more than $100,000.

Looking at similarly sized municipalities around, Binghamton, with 47,376 residents, has only seven $100,00 plus city employees. Or one out of every 6,768 residents.

Troy, with 50,129 residents, has 34 city workers making more than $100,000. Or one out of 1,474.

Utica, with a population of 62,235, has only 19 earning more than $100,000. This translates to one city worker earning more than $100,000 for every 3,275 residents – about five times lower than Niagara Falls.

Schenectady, with a population of 66,135, has 70, only one more than Niagara Falls. With 17,000 more people, the city comes in at one out of 945, compared to Niagara Falls’ one out of 717.

Albany, the state’s capital, with almost twice the population, at 97,856, has only 81 city employees earning more than $100,000 or one out of 1,208.

SCALPED BY THE SENECA

They said it couldn’t be done. Or, rather, they said it wouldn’t be done. When leaders of the Seneca Nation of Indians were gifted with 50 acres of prime real estate in the city’s tourist district, along with the multimillion dollar convention center for use as a casino that opened in 2002, they swore up and down that a tax free gas station and smoke shop just wasn’t in the cards.

For some odd reason, we here at the Niagara Falls Reporter didn’t believe them.

The Senecas began construction on their new gas station / smoke shop / fast food outlet last summer, and a Seneca website this week promises it will be “Opening Soon!”

Doesn’t that beat all.

Determining the future use and development of our sovereign lands is the right and responsibility of the Seneca Nation,” said Mo John Sr., Seneca Nation president. “This project is in keeping with those sovereign rights as recognized by the federal government.”

The Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, Niagara County’s leading business advocacy organization, came out strongly against the plan to open the 24-bay gas station on sovereign land within the city of Niagara Falls.

“While we respect the rights of a sovereign nation, the negative impact that a tax-free gas station would have on local convenience stores, businesses and the city and county would be devastating,” a prepared statement from the organization stated.

Others are opposed as well.

Likely victims of the Seneca plan include the Star food Mart, which serves up gas and cigarettes at Fourth and Main, the Citgo Mart at Seventh and Main, the Mobile station at 10th and Pine and the Mobile station at 29th and Pine.

The 7-Eleven, almost right across the street at 402 Niagara St. and Andy’s Quick Stop at 18th and Niagara will also feel the effects of the cut rate cigarette trade.

And who will make the trek out to the Tuscarora smoke shops and gas stations such as Smokin’ Joes and Randy’s once bargain basement gas and smokes are available right in downtown Niagara Falls?

Originally, Seneca officials said they would sell gasoline and cigarettes at “competitive” rates. They’ve since modified this, but why is there any reason to believe anything they say when they said they weren’t going to open a gas station / smoke shop to begin with?

“There is nearly a $5 difference in the price of a pack of cigarettes between New York retailers and Native American smoke shops,” the Niagara USA Chamber’s statement read. “While the merits of New York’s tax policy can be debated, local retailers are caught in the middle. While they must comply with New York state regulations, their neighbor can conduct business virtually unimpeded by such burdensome regulations and taxes. This is simply unfair.”

TAXPAYERS BUY HOTEL

It was more than three years ago that Gov.  Andrew Cuomo and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster rammed the controversial Hamister Hotel project down the throats of a hesitant city council, telling anyone who would listen as an election approached that the Hamister deal was pretty much do-or-die for the future of downtown redevelopment and must be approved.

Meanwhile, Hamister’s estimated cost shot up from $22.4 million to build the luxury resort to $35.7 million to build the faceless, middle market hotel. And guess what? It turned out Hamister didn’t have the money after all.

Well, after years of false starts and broken promises, all shrouded in “official” secrecy for lack of a better description, Cuomo finally announced that plans to build the Hyatt Place Hotel are at last underway because the Hamister Group has secured financing and is finally moving forward.

You could almost sense the relief coming from the Cuomo camp given the circus of broken promises that followed all the hype in 2013 when the state led the charge to approve the deal for the politically-connected Buffalo developer who won development rights without the financing piece in place, as we now know nearly three years later.

The state had already boosted the public subsidy to Hamister to $3.85 million (up from the original $2.75 million), and tax breaks from Niagara County total $4.25 million for the next 10 years. Plus, the city gave him a choice piece of Rainbow Boulevard property valued at $1.5 million for a token payment of $100,000.

What more he was given before finally deigning to break ground on the project in July is anyone’s guess.

All we know is that Canadian hotelier Michael DiCenzo offered to build the hotel for around $18 million, with comparatively little in public money.

The Reporter has indicated time and again that the hotel deal with its wildly inflated cost which determined the subsidy should be investigated.

Meantime the best undeveloped property in all of Niagara Falls – some 300 feet from the entrance of the Niagara Falls State Park – was given to a Cuomo campaign contributor to build a fully subsidized low level hotel

It was first put out to bid by an RFP where Cuomo and Dyster selected Hamister because the developer said it would be an upscale hotel with market rate apartments and stores, shops and boutiques which would create more than 100 jobs.

Other developers were ignored and finally Hamister delivered a hotel where he said there would be only 6 full time jobs and about 30 part time low level jobs at his now midscale hotel without market rate apartments and no shops after all.

And at a price that ensured Hamister got twice as much as he should have out of the taxpayers.

Only in Niagara Falls kids, only in Niagara Falls.

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