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Town's suit seen as threat to viability of AmeriCorps

The service organization WNY AmeriCorps might be forced out of business if West Seneca goes ahead with plans to pursue a lawsuit over unpaid debt to the town, a spokesman said Wednesday.

In a letter to the Town Board, WNY AmeriCorps board liaison Michael Casciano asked the town to discontinue the suit, saying that it could "possibly result in the collapse of WNY AmeriCorps."

That response wasn't enough for Supervisor Wallace C. Piotrowski, who said the service organization has had more than three years to supply the town with documentation that it has applied for state and federal grant reimbursement.

"They're asking us to wait. How much longer can we wait?" he asked. "We've waited a year and a half already They've just dragged their feet on everything they've done."

Piotrowski said Monday the town hired Hiscock & Barclay to sue WNY AmeriCorps to retrieve the more than $400,000 lump-sum payment it has owed the town since June 1. He said earlier this month the town might reconsider if it was given "legitimate documents" showing reimbursement from the state.

Piotrowski said Wednesday that those documents would have to come from funding sources from New York State, Mississippi and the federal government, not WNY AmeriCorps, and would have to show attempts at grant reimbursement made in 2008 and 2009, not just recently.

"I want to see those papers," he said. "I want to see that they've been making a good-faith effort. The lawsuit will force them to show those documents."

A separation agreement between the town and AmeriCorps was drawn in March and stipulated the town was owed more than $1.88 million. Nearly $900,000 was to come directly from WNY AmeriCorps, in the $400,000 lump-sum payment and monthly payments of $8,000. AmeriCorps has paid $96,000 in monthly payments and none of the lump sum.

Casciano wrote that state grant reimbursement to the organization slowed after a March article in The Buffalo News in which several town residents accused the nonprofit of removing items from the Burchfield Nature and Art Center, its former home. One employee filed a police report for the items.

An agreement was reached between the town and WNY AmeriCorps to divide most of the items in question, Piotrowski said, and Town Attorney Shawn P. Martin wrote in March there was "no improper activity" following AmeriCorps' departure.

Casciano stated that following the publication of the article, the state Office of Child and Family Services began an audit of WNY AmeriCorps and required documentation of all expenses prior to releasing grant funds, a procedure Casciano called "unheard of."

Spokeswoman Pat Cantiello of the Office of Child and Family Services said there were "no substantial fiscal findings" as a result of the audit.

Piotrowski said he doesn't intend for WNY AmeriCorps to become financially insolvent. He said the organization could legally acknowledge the unpaid debt, at which point a judge would sign a lien, which would be on file at the County Clerk's Office. That would ensure WNY AmeriCorps could not dispose of an asset without paying the town, he said.

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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