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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

Thursday, February 18

Brian Davis was spending district cash like it was going out of style.

When Brian Davis vacated the Ellicott District Common Council seat by pleading guilty in November to two misdemeanor counts of misusing campaign money, he made certain that his successor would be hamstrung from the word go.

For the past month, Council staff has been lamenting that Davis spent down nearly every dime available to his office, leaving Curtis Haynes Jr., who was named to fill the seat in January, with next to nothing for the remainder of the fiscal year, which stretches until June 30—no money for grants to not-for-profits, for example, and insufficient money for staff salaries. On Thursday, members of the Common Council pored over roughly $31,000 Davis sent since March 1 of last year to the Community Action Organization of Erie County, a not-for-profit of which Davis was board president. CAO disbursed the money at the direction of Davis’s chief of staff, Kimberly German, for numerous purposes, the checks signed by Davis himself: $500 to Lola Clifton for the “Models with Morals” program; $1,500 for the Boy Scout Troop at St. Martin DePorres Church; $250 for the Masten Block Club Coalition; $1,400 to help Back to Basic Outreach Ministries on Broadway pay its utility bills—all fair uses of a councilmember’s discretionary funds, which total about $120,000 per year. Davis also spent $200, through CAO, for the honor of receiving a “Spiritual Award” from the St. Martin DePorres Holy Name Society.

The lion’s share of that $31,000 went to pay for Ellicott District Fun Day, an annual carnival in August in JFK Park. This, too, is a fair use of a councilmember’s discretionary money, though one might question whether a street fair is the most pressing need in the city’s most impoverished councilmanic district.

In any case, the point is that Davis left the district strapped for the rest of the fiscal year, and the district’s books are in disarray. Perhaps $10,000 in discretionary funds are left out of about $120,000 allotted to each member annually. No community block grant money is left. In effect, Davis deprived Haynes of tools for doing good and generating good will among his constituents. That may have been Davis’s goal—that and the money itself, of course.

Friday, February 19

This afternoon Mayor Byron Brown delivered his annual State of the City address at the convention center downtown. One highlight: Brown would like to dissolve the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, the agency that brought us the One Sunset scandal, and consolidate its loan and business support programs under the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. Call us cynical, but if BERC’s functions are consolidated under BURA, the only difference will be that those functions will be overseen by a board comprising political appointees instead of a self-appointing board comprising banking professionals. (Recall that BERC’s loan committee refused to make loans to One Sunset; the staff circumvented that refusal under pressure from the mayor’s office.)

Another highlight: Brown claimed that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had “cleared” the 19 findings and two concerns described last March in a monitoring report on the city’s use of funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant program. That’s not quite true. The city and HUD are working on a memorandum of understanding that delineates how the city will address outstanding problems—inadequate controls, use of money on programs and projects that don’t qualify for federal funds, too much money spent on administrative costs—with technical assistance and oversight from HUD.

In other words, the city and HUD are putting final touches on a plan to resolve the city’s management (you can call it slipshod or corrupt, depending on how charitable you feel) of federal anti-poverty funds. Nothing has been “cleared” yet. Case in point: Finding #14 in the March report had to do with a HUD-funded revolving loan fund program that began in the 1980s and ended in the late 1990s. After the city suspended the program, which provided home-rehab loans to low- and moderate-income homeowners, it left the money stranded in the accounts of the community housing agencies that administered the funds—agencies that continued for years after to collect loan payments and maintain the accounts without benefit of contracts to do so or direction from the city. Some of that cash made its way back into city-administered programs, but much of it—no one is sure how much—remains stranded. HUD blames the city for allowing federal anti-poverty money to sit unused in these accounts. A city auditor has begun to interview housing agencies to try to account for and recover the funds.

Saturday, February 20

Nothing happened today.

Sunday, February 21

Governor David Paterson came to West Seneca on Sunday to announce that he’s seeking to retain his job this fall. The latest Siena poll says only 35 percent of New Yorkers view Paterson favorably, and only 19 percent would vote for him for governor.

Monday, February 22

On Thursday, over at AV Daily, we published a letter from Dawn Schaffer, former board president of the Black Rock Assumption Boys and Girls Club, accusing State Senator Antoine Thompson of failing to make good on an $800 grant to the club promised back in 2008. In the letter, Schaffer says that other groups also feel that Thompson has failed to deliver on funds promised in the past year or two. On Monday, Schaffer’s claim was verified by Black Rock Riverside Little League Football, Black Rock Riverside Little League Baseball, and the 21st Ward Independence Day Association. Thompson’s chief of staff, Mark Boyd, responded to the letter—also published in this week’s Riverside Review—by acknowledging that he was responsible for disbursing money promised by Thompson, that he felt certain that the senator’s obligations had been met, but that he would try to dentify and settle any derelict accounts. Schaffer was unimpressed.

The funds in question were all passed through the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Crime Prevention, an agency Thompson often uses for offering grants to agencies in his district. (For Little League teams? The Italian Festival? Crime prevention? Really?) Schaffer says she was compelled to go public with these alleged failures to follow through on funding promises when a staffer from Thompson’s office attended her local block club’s monthly meeting and began offering grants for various projects and activities.

Tuesday, February 23

Speaking of BERC, BURA, and inflated administrative fees, on Tuesday the Common Council modified Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed Community Development Block Grant application, stripping $180,000 in general administrative fees from BURA and $300,000 from the city’s commercial loan program, and redirecting that money toward a job training program, citywide infrastructure improvements, and an emergency loan program for housing.

Wednesday, February 24

Disgraced Ellicott District Councilman Brian Davis was granted a conditional discharge at his sentencing today for misusing campaign funds, ordered to perform 200 hours of community service, and forbidden to take any job that involves handling money for one year.

Meanwhile, Steve Banko—regional director of HUD, former aide to Tony Masiello, and Vietnam war veteran—is the winner this year of a Cicero Award, which honors the best speechwriting in the country. Banko first delivered his winning speech, “Memories of War; Need for Peace—The Veteran’s Search for Healing,” to the Veterans Expo in Utica in October 2008. (You can watch the speech at AV Daily at Congratulations, Steve.

geoff kelly

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