Mayor Paul Dyster has decided not to seek reelection in Niagara Falls this year. Three terms of fiscal management finally caught up with him — and a structural deficit somewhere between $15 and $20 million threatens to bankrupt a crushingly poor city.
Instead, Dyster backed his longtime staffer, Seth Piccirillo, who lost the Democratic primary in June. It was a stunning but predictable loss for a candidate with a record of development controversy. Longtime political observers from across the political spectrum see the event as a rejection of Dyster’s three-terms as Mayor.
Political insiders believe the primary was only competitive because the administration’s paid staffers were feverishly working on the Piccirillo campaign, in effect giving Piccirillo a professional campaign staff of city officials without the cost — motivated by the hope of retaining their lucrative patronage positions.
Prognosticators point to three key missteps during Dyster’s tenure.
1: Dyster took an adversarial posture with the Seneca Nation of Indians, the City’s principal economic development partner
From day one in the dispute over gaming exclusivity rights with the Seneca Nation of Indians, the Nation’s tribal council made concerted efforts to reach out to local host communities in an effort to provide some level of economic relief. They even offered to generously pay for city services directly.
In fact, the Nation offered to make service payments to host communities while withholding payments to New York State, until the State complied with the agreement and enforce the Seneca’s exclusivity rights that were agreed to in a 2002 gaming compact.
But Governor Andrew Cuomo angrily rejected that idea and directed Dyster and Mayor Byron Brown not to engage proactively with the Seneca Nation; however, Buffalo and Salamanca wisely worked out service agreements. Niagara Falls did not.
Dyster’s insensitive rhetoric and a kowtowing posture to Governor Cuomo has prevented hundreds of millions of dollars in investments that the Senecas have long been wanting to make in Niagara Falls. If the Mayor had taken a more friendly and collaborative posture with the Senecas, the tourism industry would have greatly benefited from the flow of casino money — worth millions for the struggling city.
2: Dyster deliberately misspent the City’s windfall casino money
Any freshman finance major will tell you that you a properly managed budget requires that your operating costs run significantly lower than your operating revenues. But Dyster has long seemed ignorant of that simple truth, resisting the economic realities of a tax base that cannot sustain his government’s operations.
From the outset of his administration, Dyster has misspent the casino’s cash like a drunken sailor on a Friday night. He inherited an $8 million operating surplus and another $36 million in casino windfall cash, enabling him to begin his administration with a slew of spending projects. He even announced the creation of the now-infamous Build a Better Niagara Fund. That entity was funded from anonymous Buffalo-based donors in the business community. Critics called it a smokescreen for Dyster to fund salary raises for his senior staffers and questioned its propriety.
Eventually Dyster was rebuffed by his own City Council, however, the damage had been done. To this day, many in the Dyster administration still benefit from the scandal — which resulted in the creation of a number of six-figure salaries. That management style has much to do with the City’s current budget crisis and looming bankruptcy.
Rather than making the hard decisions required to streamline government services, to automate operations, to downsize the workforce, or to regionalize service delivery — Dyster decided to spend that non-recurring windfall to sustain bloated city operations. Rather than investing in capital investment projects (like a decent sewage treatment plant, or sorely needed cultural attractions), that treasure of an opportunity was squandered on patronage hires and staff raises.
Many political observers argue that the Seneca Nation would have been a better steward of that money and that they would have better invested it in Niagara Falls than Dyster did.
3: Dyster refused to meet with NFR, the DiCienzo Family, and other investors not of his choosing, forgoing countless economic development opportunities over the years
Perhaps the most puzzling and obvious mistake of Dyster’s three terms was his unwavering refusal to engage with the City’s most successful investors and its largest private landholders, including NFR, Joe Anderson, Micheal DiCienzo, and others.
NFR owns more than 140 acres of real estate directly behind the Seneca Niagara Casino. That firm is owned by Manhattan billionaire Howard Milstein, whom Dyster has long demonized in the local political discourse.
Twelve years of opportunity delayed was more than a decade of economic opportunity denied to the poorest and most crime-ridden community in New York.
That Dyster felt so privileged that he could refuse to meet with one of the largest investors in the City’s history has been described by critics as a dereliction of duties that are inherent in the office of Mayor. They argue that he was obligated to represent the interests of city residents and taxpayers.
Instead, he inexplicably chose to fight with these well-heeled investors.
His posture towards developers has left many business people downtown scratching their heads. Why is Dyster — to this very day — still dragging his feet with the Sheraton Hotel on Third Street? That hotel is owned by longtime Niagara Falls businessman Micheal DiCienzo.
Instead of facilitating the land acquisition for DiCienzo’s proposed indoor ‘beach club’ — which would require the acquisition of a city-owned parking lot — Dyster has chosen to quarrel the well-respected developer over nonsensical issues — perhaps even intentionally trying to squash the much-needed attraction for some unseen or nefarious reason.
Could it be one last shakedown before he limps out of office?
Most in the development community can’t wait to see him leave.