NIAGARA FALLS – This struggling city, which is bleeding population and starving for money, needs all the help it can get.
It just doesn’t want that help to come from Buffalo.
That was the message given Monday by members of the City Council, who accused Mayor Paul A. Dyster of being beholden to Buffalo charities that have offered to help the cash-strapped city – and then turned down a $4,000 donation from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.
“To me, it looks like they’re trying to fund our city and buy favors from your administration,” Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian charged. “I’ve been in the system for 27 years, and I’ve never seen Buffalo get involved like they have since you’ve been mayor.”
Dyster’s offense, according to the three-man Council majority, was asking the lawmakers to approve a $4,000 donation by the Community Foundation that would have paid for the city’s enrollment in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, an organization of Great Lakes mayors who meet yearly to talk about relevant issues related to the Great Lakes watershed.
The Council had cut the item from the 2013 budget in part because of the city’s fiscal crisis with the Seneca Niagara Casino revenues.
And in recent weeks, Choolokian and Councilmen Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson Jr. have taken offense to a number of Buffalo charities that have stepped forward to restore arts funding and other causes that were cut during the budget process.
Choolokian took the allegations one step further, alleging that Dyster’s administration is essentially corrupt and has broken the law since the beginning of his first term in office.
“Do we need to get the FBI in here in City Hall?” Choolokian asked. “What’s going on here? I’m surprised nobody [went] to jail back then.”
Choolokian was referring to the beginning of Dyster’s first term, when the mayor pledged to rid City Hall of the corruption it had been identified with for decades.
Aiming to dismantle the patronage system, Dyster conducted national searches for his department heads and hired many top aides from other areas of the country.
But the city found it hard to attract well-qualified candidates for some positions, Dyster said, because of the low salaries for top City Hall officials. In 2007, the Community Foundation stepped in and helped with that effort, establishing a fund of anonymous donors who pledged to “build a better Niagara.”
The anonymous nature of that fund, which has since run out, roiled Council members who said the latest offer from the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Community Foundation were an attempt to influence city politics.
“It’s just crazy,” Dyster responded. “It’s nuts. I think when times are tough, we should be seeking grants wherever we can get them. It was a very generous offer.”
Choolokian responded, “How is Buffalo doing? How is their unemployment situation? They’ve got enough problems of their own.”
Dyster called the exchange “bizarre” and said the charities “must think we’re just crazy.”
The funding for the seaways group was supported by Councilman Charles Walker and Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti, who called the Council’s actions “very irresponsible and frankly embarrassing.”
“Do we want to send this city back to the stone ages?” she asked, garnering applause from the packed crowd in Council Chambers.