BY TERRENCE ROBINSON
In this chapter of the Mascia Chronicles we will take the reader on a hair-raising spin around the track of BMHA chicanery. Be forewarned, there are perilous curves taken at high speed, the straight aways are heart-stopping and the whole thing will leave you dizzy and uncertain on your feet for a few moments afterward.
Sometimes the best clue as to what occurred can be found in the physical evidence left at the scene. Sometimes the best evidence is found in an account of things given by a witness. Occasionally a clue can be found in a sound or event that did not occur; an alarm that didn’t sound, no sign of forced entry, and in a case cited by the noted modern detective, Sherlock Holmes, the dog that didn’t bark.
124 Maryland Street
A little over two months ago, on February 10, 2016, the City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planningsent a letter to the City of Buffalo Common Council (Common Council) requesting approval of a designated developer agreement for a city-owned site at 124 Maryland Street. The Office of Strategic Planning (OSP) proposed that the Belle Center, in collaboration with the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority be designated as the developer of the west side site. The property at 124 Maryland is adjacent to the Belle Center at 104 Maryland.
This item was placed on the agenda for the regular meeting of the Common Council that took place on February 16, 2016. At that meeting, the Common Council referred the matter to its Community Development Committee. The item was placed on the agenda of the Community Development Committee for February 23, 2016. It was the first item on the Community Development agenda and within 10 seconds of opening the meeting the item unanimously passed. The entire meeting of the Committee lasted less than 4 minutes.
The proposal to designate the Belle Center in collaboration with BMHA as developer of a $1.4 million project at 124 Maryland Street passed unanimously without discussion at the March 1, 2016 regular meeting of the Common Council.
BMHA 250,000 Grant in Aid Request
At that March 1, 2016, regular meeting of the Common Council there was another item on the agenda. On February 25, 2016, the City of Buffalo Department of Administration, Finance, Policy & Urban Affairs sent to the Council a proposed grant agreement between the City and BMHA – for the issuance of grant funding, for their review. The Department claimed that $250,000 had been allocated in the City’s 2015 – 2016 Budget for grant in aid assistance to BMHA. The terms of the proposed agreement require that the grant monies assist in the funding of the operating deficit related to the Frederick Douglass Associate partnerships.
At the Finance Committee hearing, held on March 8, 2016, BMHA Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett offered a smokescreen that the funds were intended to close the gap between rents and shortfalls on behalf of 46 “legacy” tenants who may not have been able to meet a 30% of income threshold level. That entry level excusemaking quickly elevated to critiques of federal public housing policy, claims of federal budget slashing, and other unrelated topics.
The measure passed with unanimous approval.
Committee Chairman Richard Fontana then recognized BMHA Commissioner Joseph Mascia who was eager to share his thoughts on the $250,000 grant to BMHA. Commissioner Mascia questioned the wisdom of providing BMHA with a substantial grant when the agency had just claimed to have the resources to underwrite a $1.4 million dollar community project with no relationship to BMHA residents. Commissioner Mascia also questioned the fiscal management capacity of BMHA and asked for a review before proceeding with the grant request. Bark, bark.
Two days following that March 8 Finance Committee hearing, City of Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder sent a letter to the Common Council. Comptroller Schroeder’s letter listed over $3 million in outstanding invoices that BMHA owed the City of Buffalo – 1.9 million for natural gas – 1.1 million for police services – 159,502 for indirect costs. Attached to Comptroller Schroeder’s letter, was an April 11, 2014 letter from City Auditor Kevin J. Kaufman to City of Buffalo Director of Treasury and Collections, Michael Seaman. The letter related to an outstanding balance of $1,864,491.20 for unpaid gas bills from November 2004 to March 2008 for service to the Marine Drive apartments.
In 2004, BMHA requested that the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority permit the Authority to enter into an agreement with HKMDA, LLC, for the management of the Marine Drive Apartments. The New York State Department of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) advised BMHA of serious management deficiencies in numerous reports during HKMDA’s tenure. DHCR’s reports noting HKMDA’s deficiencies began in the summer of 2005, BMHA did not remove HKMDA from its management position until the end of 2006, despite expiration in December 2005 of HKMDA’s management agreement. A scathing final report by the State of New York Inspector General dated October 13, 2009 recommended that the DHCR conduct a full review of BMHA to ensure that the rampant abuses outlined in the report were addressed.
Erie Regional Caper
This is too convoluted a tale to attempt to tell in one sitting but you’ve got to know some of the basics. The Erie Regional Housing Development Corporation is a domestic not for profit corporation founded by the BMHA in 1997. The by-laws of the corporation require that the Board of Directors include Chairman of the Board of the BMHA, The Executive Director of the BMHA and Assistant Executive Director of BMHA as members. Since 2006, Michael Seaman, Dawn Sanders-Garrett, and Modesto Candelario have served as BMHA’s members. The Councilmembers of the Niagara, Ellicott, and Fillmore Districts and the Mayor of Buffalo have appointees to the Board. The corporation’s mission is to assist in providing affordable housing in the city of Buffalo. The primary focus of the corporation since the HOPE VI development of the Lakeview Homes has been the administration of the Belle Center at 104 Maryland St in Buffalo. When management of the Marine Drive Apartments by HKMDA was terminated, BMHA selected Erie Regional Housing Development Corporation as the replacement. Erie Regional managed the Marine Drive Apartments from January 2007 until December 2010. From January 2007 until March 2008 responsibility for the unpaid portions of the utility bills for Marine Drive was Erie Regional’s. They were also responsible for the unpaid bills and accumulating interest until their contract terminated in December 2010.
There was some bickering as to who may be responsible for the $3 million debt and why BMHA should not be held accountable or disadvantaged for an aged claim of vague indebtedness.
Rather than pass the grant-in-aid item which had come to the March 15, Council meeting with a committee vote of approval, the Council voted to recommit the matter to the Finance Committee. Comptroller Schroeder’s official notification had placed passage of the measure in jeaopardy. A resolution was urgently sought.
On Monday March 21, representatives from BMHA, the Comptroller’s Office, and the Common Council met to resolve the awkward impasse. BMHA pledged to produce payment for $650,000 owed to the city for police protection in Fiscal Year 2015. BMHA claimed that incorrect billing procedures prevented the Authority from processing a $433,000 bill for police services in Fiscal Year 2013.
At the Tuesday, March 22 meeting of the Finance Committee, the comptroller’s Office amended the calculation of BMHA’s debt to the city to include $1.7 million in unpaid water bills. A Special Meeting of the Council was convened to vote on the matter of the $250,000 grant to BMHA. The measure was approved by a vote of 6 – 3.
In a letter to the Common Council dated March 23,2016, Comptroller Schroeder stated “Currently BMHA owes the City $1.9 million in unpaid natural gas bills and $1.7 million to the Buffalo Water Board for unpaid water bills.” His letter included an attachment from BMHA Basic Financial Statements for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 2014 that said; “ The Authority recognized $3,467,714 as income during the current fiscal year as a result of writing off old outstanding payables to the City of Buffalo for water, sewer and other services. Management has determined that the Authority has offsetting amounts due from the City to reimburse operating deficits incurred during the fiscal years 2004 through 2010” Schroeder’s letter contained the following language; “ This Department is not aware of the Common Council, nor the Buffalo Water Board, providing authorization to the BMHA to forgive these debts owed to the City. Furthermore, the City and the Water Board do not have any recorded material outstanding liabilities to the BMHA.”
The matter was placed on the agenda of the March 29 regular meeting of the Common Council.
The item was placed on the April 5 Meeting of the Finance Committee.
Still, its rather amusing to note that the first request, the one made by the City of Buffalo Office of Strategic Planning to designate the Belle Center (Erie Regional) as developer of the 124 Maryland site stated that BMHA’s role as collaborator was to pay the cost of utilities. Oh yeah, and according to the terms of the agreement – section I – “Individuals and or corporations having outstanding taxes, water bills, parking tickets, user fee and/or demolition liens owed to the City of Buffalo, or if code violations exist on any property owned by them will not be eligible for designation.”
That, and the part about the $250,000 grant request having been made by the City of Buffalo Department of Administration, Finance, etc where the Treasury and Collections under Director Michael Seaman official description of services includes “Receive, receipt and deposit all monies for the City of Buffalo including but not limited to Taxes, Sewer, Water, User Fee, Parking Violations and Accounts Receivable.” and “Oversees the Billing and Collections Division in the preparation of financial statements, evaluations and reports on persons or organizations indebted to the City of Buffalo for delinquent Taxes, User Fee, …” In addition to his duties as an officer of the Board of Directors with Erie Regional, and as Chairman of the Board of Directors of BMHA, Michael Seaman’s official duties as City Treasurer require that he “Acts as liason between the Comptroller’s Office and the Common Council, private sector entities and city departments or agencies concerning Collections.”
Well folks, sooner or later we’ll get to the bottom of this Mascia Chronicle barrel – in the meantime, we’ll keep on truckin’.