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Niagara Falls mayor suggests waiving residency requirement to hire city engineer

NIAGARA FALLS – Despite several large projects – including new hotels, new housing developments, parking meters and a $41 million International Transportation and Railway Station set to open in a few months – the city has been operating without a city engineer for the last three years.

It’s not for lack of trying, Mayor Paul A. Dyster told the City Council on Monday as he asked it to consider waiving the requirement that all city employees must live in the city.

The most recent city engineer, Jeffrey Skurka, was fired in 2013 and sued the city in 2014 to get his job back and to collect $150,000 in lost pay and benefits. According to his suit, which remains unsettled, he was fired after two years on the job following a run-in with Dyster and City Administrator Donna D. Owens over the Lewiston Road reconstruction project.

Skurka’s lawsuit contends that he was fired for his actions regarding safety violations on Lewiston Road and that his dismissal is a violation of the whistleblower provisions of the state Civil Service Law.

Dyster said the city has been looking for an engineer for “quite some time,” conducting searches in 2014 and then reopening the search again in January.

The mayor said that the 2014 search yielded 13 applicants and that five were interviewed. But the two strongest candidates withdrew because of the residency requirement, he said.

The Council decided not to fund the position in 2015 amid concerns that Dyster would be unable to fill the appointment – the engineer serves at the pleasure of the mayor – in an election year.

When the job was posted in January, the salary was listed as $95,500 per year. A successful applicant would have to have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, five years of experience in engineering and project management, and possess a license to practice as a professional engineer in New York.

In 2009, the city hired an engineer and found out that his license had expired. He was fired after less than five months on the job.

In 2010, another engineer was appointed by the Dyster administration but was forced to step down after he did not establish residency in the city.

Dyster said the search after his re-election in 2015 yielded seven applicants, including three who were recommended for interviews. He said that there was a deep check into their qualifications and that none was offered the job.

The mayor told the Council that the candidate pool was “extremely limited” as a result of the residency requirement.

Dyster asked the Council whether, for this one job title, it would consider waiving the residency requirement to hire someone who has all the qualifications and high recommendations.

He suggested some hypothetical issues that could bar someone from moving to Niagara Falls, including a spouse who was working under a residency requirement or someone who receives health care from another entity, which they would lose if they were to move.

“We just feel we are running out of options,” Dyster said, adding that the job would be offered if a Council majority were willing to waive the residency requirement.

The request was taken under advisement, and the selection process remains confidential. No action was taken on the issue.