It comes with the territory -- working in the public sector -- that your income is public. If you want privacy, work in the private sector, where people through taxation are not forced to pay your wages.
The public -- your employer -- has the right to know!
Recently it has come to the public's attention, in the wake of Niagara Falls police chief John Chella's announced resignation, followed by his reversing his decision and deciding to stay on to improve the payout of his pension, that as chief he was getting substantial overtime payments.
A department head who is presumed part of management was not only earning $85,800 per year as a salary but $39,000 in overtime and other allowances, paid, as we learned, through some kind of grant.
This came as quite a surprise to the public.
True, the $39,000 was not direct taxpayer contributions, but it is interesting that a city employee thought to make $85,800 was actually making $125,000.
Since Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster came to office in 2008, he has boosted salaries of top City Hall employees beyond anything ever known in this city.
He boosted salaries of department heads from an average $50,000 to $60,000 (what they were during the administration of Mayor Vince Anello) to the $70,000 to $110,000 range.
Almost every top aide has gotten a substantial boost under Dyster.
This much the public knows.
But are salaries even higher than what the public has been told? As it was in the case of Chief Chella?
What do other department heads make?
Are there special grants, presently secret from the public, deals, or, not to characterize it negatively, maneuvers, like allowing department heads to remain as acting department heads indefinitely in order to qualify for overtime, or securing grants unknown to the public to simply pad the salaries of people at City Hall, or perhaps other methods far more hazy to get more money to City Hall employees, without transparency?
Do other cities do these kind of things?
How many police chiefs have a published salary and a private salary? How many police chiefs get overtime gained by grants, apparently worked up for the sole purpose of increasing their salary?
I do not mean this as criticism of Chella. Who would turn down an extra $39,000 in overtime and allowances if they could get it?
Especially when these non-taxpayer paid-for grants might boost your taxpayer-funded pension by as much as $20,000 per year when you retire.
How many others at City Hall have the same arrangement, where the public thinks a public employee is earning one figure and are asked (though the elected Council) to grant raises based on that published figure, and yet the city employee is really making far more?
Niagara Falls is a poor city. The people are struggling on average annual incomes of $20,000 or so and plagued with around the highest taxes in the country in proportion to the value of their real estate, yet City Hall employees under Dyster are making in excess of $100,000, getting paid far more than people with like jobs in similar and even larger cities, making far more than the people they serve.
In order to find out how much department heads really are making in this city, the Niagara Falls Reporter filed the following freedom of information requests this week:
"Under the New York State Freedom of Information Law Article 6 of the New York State Public Officer's Law Section's 84-90 I hereby request all payroll and financial reimbursement information (with said payroll source(s) derived from the general fund, the emergency fund, the "rainy day fund," the casino fund, state funding, federal funding and/or all other budget/funding/payroll sources including any grants) for the fiscal year 2011 with regard to City of Niagara Falls employees listed below.
"And I request such information as it pertains to those individual's income from: salary; hourly; overtime; grant funds whether paid for administering said grant(s) or paid from/through said grant(s), acting pay; stipend(s); bonuses; money received from/through the Buffalo Foundation and or the Building a Better Niagara Falls Fund" or from any other source/method of financial reward or reimbursement from the City of Niagara Falls for each of the employees listed below.
- Paul Dyster, Mayor
- Donna Owens, City Administrator
- Craig Johnson, Corporation Counsel
- Maria Brown, City Controller
- John Chella, Chief of Police
- Thomas De Santis, Senior Planner
- Dennis Virtuoso, Acting Code Enforcement Director
- Thomas O'Donnell, First Deputy Corporation Counsel
- Dave Kinney Sr., Director, DPW"
Of course it is true that City Hall may respond to this FOIL request by saying that "all of these salaries are listed publicly on the city website in the interest of public disclosure, so don't bother us."
But the public listing, however, would not show a breakdown of overtime, or the anonymous Buffalo Fund, or grant dollars, casino cash and so forth.
Which raises another topic of interest: The Building a Better Niagara Falls Fund, the original fund that justified Dyster raising salaries that change pay rates so dramatically at City Hall.
These funds, which were supposed to come from private anonymous donors to help pay a portion of the salaries of top Dyster appointees, were delivered from Buffalo to the city. A paper trail and banking trail exist. The public has never seen it and it remains hidden to this day.
Our second FOIL reads like this:
"I hereby request all records, communications, agreements, and financial/banking documents as drawn between the City of Niagara Falls and the Building a Better Niagara Fall Fund which detail the flow/transmittal of the Building a Better Niagara Falls Fund monies from their organization to the bank account(s) of the city through the care and control of the City Controller, Maria Brown. Said records would include money received, money paid out for all and any manner including salaries, benefits, travel, food, accommodations and relocation/moving fees for those individuals hired by the city.
"In addition all records detailing and proving/establishing the 'closeout' of the city's Building a Better Niagara Falls Fund with said closeout ordered at the direction of the Niagara Falls City Council are also sought at this time."
Our third FOIL concerns city contracts for Dyster's "best and brightest," some of whom were hired and paid in part by the secret Building a Better Niagara Falls Fund:
"I hereby request the written agreements, letters of intent, hiring agreements and or employment contracts as drawn between the City of Niagara Falls and the following employees:
- Donna Owens, City Administrator
- Craig Johnson, Corporation Counsel
- Jeffrey Skurka, City Engineer
- Ruby Pulliam, Director of Human Resources/EEO
- Peter Kay, former economic development director"
Finally, Police Chief Chella got a new contract at a recent Council meeting through a resolution pushed by Dyster.
Chella now has an arrangement to openly get overtime and grant monies.
How much will he receive this year? Will it be $150,000 or more?
Will the overtime of a department head, normally exempt from overtime because he is part of management, be included in his pension calculations?
Will Chella cash out at the end of the year with an enhanced pension payment?
In the end, taxpayers will pay his pension, whether it is $60,000 per year, or if his new overtime is counted, $90,000 or perhaps $100,000 per year.
Pensions, most wastefully in New York state, are often calculated, as Chella's will be, from his final year's salary.
Because Chella's overtime last year came from a grant and there was no pre-authorized contract, in order to get taxpayers to pay an additional $20,000 or better per year on his pension, the City Council has to authorize an agreement with Chella going forward.
They have done this for apparently the sole purpose of enhancing his pension.
Manipulating your retirement at the expense of the taxpayers is something almost every government employee tries to do. Who can blame them?
The system is slanted against the taxpayer.
In the end, public employees, by taking loads of sick time and overtime in their last year, often manipulate their pension so that it is higher than their actual base salary for a job they may have worked at for 25 years.
Mighty generous for a bankrupt state.
Now, some are exempt employees -- department heads in almost every city are part of management -- which means they do not qualify to receive overtime.
They aren't paid by the hour but by the job, and it is presumed by the public that their salary includes fair and honest compensation for a job where they might have to work more hours and perhaps sometimes fewer hours in any given week.
They are not punching a clock.
So this Chella matter is an interesting development, perhaps a precedent, one that certainly does not favor the taxpayers, a plan put in place to increase a man's pension by $20,000 or so per year by special collaboration of the Council, the mayor and the employee.
I do not blame Chella. But this is public business.
He was planning retirement based on getting a pension based on a higher salary (including his overtime) and he miscalculated. Now he needs to work an extra year and take a lot of overtime in order to get that extra $20,000 or better per year pension for life.
He is looking out for his interests.
Who is looking out for the interests of the taxpayers?
Our next FOIL reads:
"I hereby request all documents that detail the complete payout of city and other funds (in salary; overtime; hourly; grant monies -- federal, state or other -- and all other sources of payment from the City of Niagara Falls) made to Niagara Falls Police Chief John Chella for the fiscal year 2011.
"And I request the pension papers submitted by the City of Niagara Falls to the State of New York in support of Chief Chella's planned retirement from the city at the end of 2011, along with the written agreement/contract as passed via city council resolution at the March 5, 2012 council meeting detailing the new/modified payment and pension plan as drawn between the City and Chief Chella to take effect for the year 2012."
No it doesn't give one a good feeling to have to dig into a fairly non-transparent administration's payments to their top people.
Are we stepping on people's privacy?
As long as we are paying these salaries (paid by our taxes and levied under threat of confiscation of our homes) like any good employer, we would be remiss if we did not know how much we are paying.
And that includes what we are being set up to pay in pensions -- which in most cases are far better than pensions in the private sector.
We will report the city's entire response.
Let's see if the city tries to foil our FOIL request.