By Mike Hudson
Last week, our colleagues at the Niagara Gazette ran a thought provoking and largely sensible editorial calling for the hiring of a city engineer.
That is a sensible position. Paying vast sums of money to outside engineering consultants from Buffalo – as Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has been doing for most of his two terms in office – makes no sense whatsoever.
The editorial was thought provoking because it reiterated a position Dyster has long maintained: That the $96,000-plus benefits that the city is offering to fill the position just isn’t enough to attract a qualified candidate.
“It has often been said that the post here is hard to fill because the salary is not competitive with other cities, even smaller that Niagara Falls,” the editorialist wrote. “That’s a challenge which both the mayor and the City Council should address in the new year.”
Despite the fact that the mayor has been telling people this ever since he fired the highly competent city engineer Bob Curtis on Jan. 1, 2008, many simply don’t believe it.
According to the website Salary.com, a state licensed civil engineer in the private sector might expect to earn between $56,179 and $68,980 in Western New York, depending on experience and qualifications.
But as we’ve seen elsewhere, municipal employees on the Niagara Frontier often make far more than their counterparts in the private sector. After a bit of digging, we discovered that the proposed $95,000 salary is not at all out of line with what other New York municipalities are paying their city engineers.
The City of Utica has within its boundaries, 205 miles of roadway, 188 miles of sanitary sewer, 107 miles of storm sewer, 102 miles of combined sewers, parks and playgrounds encompassing approximately 720 acres, a zoo, a golf course, a marina, a recreation center, as well as other city owned buildings. Its’ population is 61,000, more than 10,000 above that of Niagara Falls.
In Utica, J. Michael Mahoney earns $63,546 a year. His official title is Deputy City Engineer, but he has held the top spot in that city’s engineering department for a number of years, and functions as a city engineer would in any municipality.
With 47,000 people and an economy based largely on tourism in the Finger Lakes region, Binghamton is very comparable to Niagara Falls.
The city engineer there, Ray L. Standish, makes $88,831 a year.
In Schenectady, with a significantly larger population of 65,902, the city engineer, Christopher Wallin, makes $95,371, about what Dyster has proposed for the position here.
And in nearby Buffalo, a city five times as large as Niagara Falls, City Engineer Peter Merlo earned just $84,305 in 2013, the last year for which figures are available.
Why is it that Buffalo, Schenectady, Binghamton and Utica can manage to fill the position of city engineer for as much or less than what Niagara Falls is offering?
Looking at recent history, one could easily get the impression that the Dyster administration likes things just the way they are, and isn’t interested in having a city engineer at all.
After firing Curtis just minutes after being sworn in as mayor and beginning his first term, Dyster oversaw the courthouse construction project on North Main Street with the city engineer’s office vacant. Cost overruns plagued the project, which was handed over to a $14,500-per-month outside consulting engineer who also happened to be a Dyster campaign contributor.
It wasn’t until the courthouse was substantially finished when, on March, 30, 2009, Dyster hired Ali Marzban, an Iranian immigrant from Los Angeles.
Five months later, Dyster fired Marzban following a Niagara Falls Reporter expose that revealed Marzban did not have a license to practice engineering in New York State or anywhere else in the United States.
During Marzban’s time in office, however, he was permitted to sign off on the disastrous Lewiston Road project, which was the subject of a lawsuit.
Reconstruction went millions over budget and years behind schedule before it was completed by a second contractor in the summer of 2013.
Dyster again had no engineer until January, 2010, when he hired Tom Radomski. Seventeen months later, he fired Radomski for being in violation of the city’s residency ordinance.
He hired Jeffrey Skurka in July 2011 and fired him in April 2013. Skurka had been so vocal in his criticism of safety practices on the Lewiston Road project that Dyster barred him from visiting the work site he was supposed to be watching over.
The former engineer filed a lawsuit against the city for wrongful termination.
In addition to the courthouse and Lewiston Road projects, other engineering disasters that have occurred have included the repaving of 72nd Street, LaSalle Park and the new train station and underground railroad exhibit on Whirlpool Street.
Dyster has now been in office for 96 months. The city has been without an engineer for 53 of those months.
The total cost to city taxpayers resulting from this absence has been astronomical. Millions of dollars has been siphoned off to Buffalo engineering consultants such as Clark Patterson Lee, which collects a $95,000 a year retainer for its part time services to the city. During the courthouse construction, LiRo Engineers of Buffalo pulled down $14,500 a month. Wendell Engineers have raked in millions as they have been retained to oversee Lewiston Rd. and the train station.
Overtime costs in the city’s 10-member engineering department have also skyrocketed.
There are some who believe that Dyster’s problem in attracting an engineer to Niagara Falls, despite the competitive wage and benefit package, is Dyster himself.
Certainly, his dealings with Curtis, Marzban, Radomski and Skurka were not happy ones, and it is doubtful that any of them would think that having worked for the Dyster administration would be considered an asset on their resumes.
Regardless, the accepted Dyster wisdom – that a $96,000 annual salary just isn’t enough to attract a qualified engineer – is just not true. He can say it over and over again and it won’t make it any more so.