Niagara Gazette — City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka is looking for a new job.
Skurka and City Administrator Donna Owens were the only two members of Mayor Paul Dyster’s administration to have their salaries cut by city council amendments to the mayor’s proposed budget for 2013. They are also the two members of his administration who are most often called in front of the council to explain the status of various projects.
“I feel this is all retaliatory treatment,” Skurka said.
Next year, Skurka’s salary will be cut from $96,000 to $78,000. Owens’ salary will fall by 37 percent, from $110,000 to $70,000. The council attempted to cut the salaries of Skurka and Owens by $20,000 each last year through budget amendments, but failed to garner the necessary votes to override Dyster’s vetoes.
Owens has declined to comment on her salary cut.
Skurka — who earned his engineering degree from Rutgers University and has over 15 years of industry experience under his belt — said some members of the council have targeted him because he has questioned requests they have made of him and that they have used their position as council members to publicly scold him at council meetings.
The harassment of the council coupled with a substantial pay cut have caused Skurka to begin looking for a new job, possibly in another field.
“I’m certainly looking for other opportunities,” he said.
Skurka said that pressures from the council to do things that go against the ethical principles of sound engineering have been causing him health problems — anxiety attacks, high blood pressure — and those pressures have him very ready to move on from the job.
When Skurka saw the city job advertised in the paper he thought that he had found his dream job, he said.
“But it’s my worst nightmare,” he said.
Skurka said a Pine Avenue pedestrian street light project has been particularly contentious. Council members called for the light after requests came in from business owners on the street. The light — being installed on the 2200 block of Pine Avenue directly in front of the Como Restaurant — is a response to a series of high-profile accidents where pedestrians were hit by cars.
At the council’s request, Skurka looked into the installation of the light and submitted plans to the New York State Department of Transportation. State engineers returned the plans, saying the light was “not warranted” and that they could not recommend installing a light on that block.
Skurka said the light has the potential to cause an increase in rear-end accidents, and to install it goes against engineering and ethical principles.
“I don’t think the council understands, or even really wants to understand, what the responsibility of a professional engineer is or even why the city has to have a professional engineer,” Skurka said. “My responsibility is for the protection of life, health and property.”
When Skurka reported back to the council at a May council meeting on what the state had said council members questioned the state’s advice and told Skurka that they wanted to move ahead anyway, telling Skurka to take “whatever steps were necessary” to get the project done.
Skurka said that in the answers he gave to the council he was only reporting his professional opinion, an opinion that matched up with those of state officials, federal guidelines and the professional opinion of other city hall employees.
“I’m giving them straight answers,” he said. “I’m trying to obey the law.”
Skurka said that since coming into the position in July of 2011 he has also been “stonewalled” by certain members of the engineering staff, who he would not name, because he was asking them to do work that they did not want to do.
Councilman Charles Walker, who wrote the amendments to cut the salaries, said the cuts were in response to performance. The salary increases came with promises from the mayor that the bumps would draw more talent to city hall.
“The whole idea of bringing in more talented people was to get more bang for our buck,” Walker said.
Owens and Skurka have failed to deliver on that premise, according to Walker. The council would consider raising the salaries if the administration can show proof that Skurka and Owens are producing savings for the city.
“This is a way to hopefully get the administration’s attention,” Walker said.
Councilman Glenn Choolokian said the council felt, particularly in such a tough budget year, they had to take a hard look at some of the highest paid positions in city hall.
“If you look at what those salaries were at in 2005 and 2006 — they jumped pretty high,” he said.
Speaking for himself and not for the council, Choolokian said he felt both Owens and Skurka have done a poor job, saying Owens was often “missing in action” and that engineering projects were not “happening in a timely fashion.” He added were often unprepared when asked for administrative updates at council meetings.
Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti voted with her council colleagues, overturning both of Dyster’s vetoes to the pay cuts unanimously. Last year she and Walker voted to sustain the mayor’s vetoes to pay cuts to Owens and Skurka.
She said that the tight budget this year caused her to change her mind.
“I thought it was a logical way to cut expenses,” Grandinetti said. “I still think those are fair wages for them to be making.”
Though she does agree with her colleagues that the pay cuts were necessary for this budget she did say that issues of performance should be discussed behind closed doors.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to berate a department head in public,” Grandinetti said. “It’s terrible and embarrassing.”
Dyster has said that the council is not supposed to be doing performance evaluations and cutting the salaries is in violation of the city charter.
Dyster said that if the council has issues with department heads they should be contacting him or the city administrator.
If city employees are working with the fear that the council may publicly call them out on their performance or cut salaries that were either advertised or negotiated for it could cause an environment of intimidation that is counterproductive, Dyster explained.
“I think it has a chilling effect on the performance of their duties.”
mug of Dyster, Paul Paul Dyster Unhappy with move