NIAGARA FALLS, NY – The Niagara Falls Water Board has cleaned house, firing four top administrators, and re- organizing its board of directors during a meeting held Thursday night.
"I’ve been a resident of Niagara Falls for 65 years, I'm a rate payer, I've seen things happen over there, and it was time for changes,” said Dan O’Callaghan, who was installed as the new chairman of the board in what was his first meeting as a board member.
The new board majority dismissed Executive Director Paul Drof; Norman Allen, director of infrastructure; Anthony M. Hahns, director of administration and contracts and John Ottaviano, general counselor.
"No one wants to see people lose their jobs but everyone has a job to do," said O'Callaghan, adding that from what he could tell, many important functions were not getting done by the previous administrators.
“There was the 72nd street fiasco,” said O'Callaghan, referring to when several customers went for weeks on end without water when pipes froze causing service disruptions two winters ago. “The Water Board didn’t take responsibility and that’s not fair to the rate payers or the people of Niagara Falls,” he said.
O’Callaghan also cited concerns over an audit which called into question whether millions of dollars in Water Board funds had properly been budgeted, as well as an audit of the infrastructure of its system which showed the lion’s share of water produced by the agency, is actually lost through leaking pipes.
“Over sixty-eight percent of the water that's produced every day is leaked out to the system," said O’Callaghan, “and they haven’t had a financial person in place for over three months to oversee expenditures and budgets.”
"I don’t think it would surprise anyone who has been watching what's happening here in the city of Niagara Falls to know that there was an interest in having changes made in the Niagara Falls Water Board," said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.
The Water Board, a public authority created several years ago to take over the water system once operated by the city, functions separate and apart from the city government. Nonetheless, the two entities have to work together in a relationship that in recent years has soured amid a myriad of disputes.
“It's been a very ugly relationship,” said Niagara Falls City Councilman Kenny Tompkins. “It’s almost like they felt they were in a sense Godlike…that they could do whatever they wanted and be accountable to no one,” Tompkins said.
"I think the relationship could be a lot better,” said Dyster, who is allowed to make one appointment to the board.
When the term of one of its board members was up, creating a vacancy, Dyster last month appointed O'Callaghan, a retired construction project manager.
“This was my first meeting,” noted O'Callaghan, whom Dyster said he chose because he thought O'Callaghan is “someone I think believes in greater coordination between the Water Board and the City of Niagara Falls.”
However, Dyster insists he did not foresee O'Callaghan’s rapid ascent to board chair. “I didn’t know that that was going to happen," Dyster told WGRZ-TV.
However, when it did, O'Callaghan found himself as the head of a new board majority, along with Nicholas Forster, a newly appointed member chosen by the City Council.
The group didn’t hesitate to make changes.
“Well, the changes were needed,” O’Callaghan said.
And he pledges more will be forthcoming, to repair the water board’s relationship with its customers, its labor force, and its strained relationship with city hall.
“We need to work with the rate payers, so they can have faith back in the water board. When they have questions they deserve answers,“ he said. “We need to boost the morale of our workers, some of whom haven’t had a contract in eight years…and we need to work better with the city administration. These are things that should have been taken care of the past (Water Board) administration. They might have thought they were doing their jobs, but there's too many things that need to be corrected."
After flushing the former crop of administrators, board members hired Rolfe Porter, who previously held administrative positions with the City of Cleveland and Erie County Water Authority to replace Drof.
James Perry, former director of human resources at Niagara Falls Goodyear plant, was appointed director of administrative services and human resources to replace Hahns.
In addition, Kendra McClain will come on board in March as director of financial services, David Sanchez of the LoTempio Law Group in Buffalo will replace Ottaviano as general counsel, and the
engineering firm of Clark Paterson and Lee will handle infrastructure issues on a contract basis.
The new board also restored a program to help offset the costs of leaky pipes for some ratepayers.
Known as the Frozen Water Assistance Program, which was something that the Water Board had ended last year much to the consternation of some customers.
"I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Tompkins. “I do believe the board has the right idea and I do believe we will move forward and I do believe it is a positive."