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Mayor Paul A. Dyster cleared a crucial step Monday toward hiring an Atlanta public works official to serve as city administrator at a $110,000 salary.

The City Council unanimously voted to approve the 83.3 percent pay increase for the city job, which will be partly funded by a Buffalo-based foundation.

Several councilmen said they had heard from many residents who wanted to know why the mayor needed to increase the salary from $60,000 to $110,000 to lure an out-of-town job candidate to the Falls.

"All I did was remind them that 82 percent of the people put that man in office to turn this city around," Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. said. "You have to give the man the opportunity to move forward."

Dyster announced last week that he plans to hire Donna D. Owens to serve as his second-in-command. Owens, who currently works as deputy commissioner of the Office of Solid Waste Services for the Atlanta Department of Public Works, was chosen after a four-month national search.

The national search and $35,000 of Owens' salary will be paid through the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo's Build a Better Niagara Fund. The fund was set up earlier this year by private, anonymous donors to conduct a national merit-based search and to attract new candidates to top government positions during Dyster's four-year term.

Dyster said the Community Foundation has not released the names of the donors nor the amount that is in the fund, but has made a four-year commitment to supplement the salaries of top officials.

Owens will have the highest base salary of any position on the city's payroll when she succeeds interim City Administrator William Bradberry in July.

Dyster compared the impact of hiring Owens by the city government to the effect that signing center Daniel Briere once had on the Buffalo Sabres.

"Because of the generosity of the Community Foundation, we were able to go into the national market and sign our Briere," Dyster said.

The increased salary has brought high expectations for Owens.

"Are we going to win the Stanley Cup with her?" asked Councilman Chris Robins, continuing the sports analogy. "We better at least make the playoffs."

Dyster has identified five top city positions -- city administrator, corporation counsel, city engineer, director of economic development and director of tourism development -- for which he is using professional recruiters to find talent. The Community Foundation fund is paying for the recruiters.

Resident Ken Hamilton urged that the city, to avoid any conflicts of interest, identify donors who have contributed to the fund.

The Council was initially asked to approve a measure in which the city would fund $78,000 of the city administrator's salary. The Council amended the proposal Monday to $75,000 to reflect money it had set aside in a contingency fund last year for pay raises in Dyster's administration. The Community Foundation will reimburse the city for the remaining portion of the salary increase.

In other business Monday, the Council took the follow actions:

*Approved extending its Empire Zone tax credits to Ascension Industries of North Tonawanda. The Falls has the only Empire Zone program in Niagara County, but state law allows the city to extend its benefits to companies outside of the area that are planning "regionally significant projects." Ascension Industries plans to expand its facility to create 50 new jobs during the next five years.

The Council tabled the proposal last month but approved it Monday after receiving assurances that it would not affect tax credits available to Niagara Falls businesses. Ascension Industries also agreed to take steps to make jobs available to qualified Niagara Falls residents first.

*Gave the mayor permission to sign a four-week, $110,000 agreement to lease three Pothole Killer machines from a Pennsylvania company. The machines can be run by one operator and can fill potholes faster than the city's equipment, officials said.

*Heard that all digital parking meters installed by Photo Violation Technologies in the downtown area are now working. The Council asked the company to work with the city during the next two weeks to create a system for ticketing parking violators. The Council has not yet approved an extension of a free trial of the meters, which have worked only intermittently since they were installed because of problems including power sources.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com