Park residences put Erie County in landlord business - The Buffalo News
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Park residences put Erie County in landlord business

For rent: Lakefront ranch house, 2,295 square feet; very good updates; $1,050 monthly, plus utilities. Available: Medium-sized two-story residence with working fireplace and newer garage; sits on four acres; $850-a-month rent.

For lease: Small ranch-style house in park setting, new doors and windows; leaky roof; $750 a month.

In all, there are 11 such residences in Erie County, each in a park setting.

And the landlord is you, the Erie County taxpayer.

However, County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw is questioning whether the rents on these residences are high enough and whether taxpayers should be repairing the dilapidated ones. But he also asks another question.

“The bigger picture question is, why is Erie County in the landlord business?” Mychajliw said. “If we are going to be in that business, are we getting the most value for the homes that we have?”

Mychajliw – whose office recently released an audit of these residences – would not answer his own big-picture question. Instead, he deferred to the county's policy-makers to decide whether the government should be in the rental housing business.

Demolition is being evaluated for some of the empty houses, according to Troy Schinzel, county commissioner of parks and recreation.

“Every residence is going to be reviewed on a case-by-case scenario,” Schinzel said. “The residence at Emery Park is going to be demolished, and the one at Elma Meadows we are currently reviewing for possible demolition.”

However, Schinzel said, demolition still would require thousands of dollars in county resources. Since his appointment by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in January 2012, Schinzel said his priority has been devoting resources to the maintenance and repair of park amenities, such as shelters and restrooms, rather than the dilapidated houses.

As for the six viable residences, Schinzel noted the previous administration of County Executive Chris Collins “spent tens of thousands of dollars rehabbing these houses, which may not have been the wisest move.”

Each of the residences was acquired by the county more than four decades ago. The habitable properties are anywhere from 50 to 100 years old. Historically, they were used as residences for county workers who used to be designated as caretakers of the parks. That lasted until the majority of the parks superintendent positions were eliminated during the budget crisis of the Giambra administration.

Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, a Republican from Orchard Park, recalled that several of the residences began to fall into disrepair around that time, as upkeep was sacrificed to cut costs.

“It was horrible back in 2006-07. People were vandalizing the copper pipes and leaving the windows open,” Mills said. “They do need security in the parks, though that might be better accomplished by increasing the sheriff's road patrols.”

Currently, county employees provide some security in the parks as renters of three of the six habitable residences, Schinzel said, while also paying renter's insurance.

“We strive to have a county employee there first because our goal is to have someone there 24 hours a day to provide parks security and to attend to any maintenance needs that may occur overnight,” he said.

Even though the county employees who rent those residences are required under their leases to keep a yearly incident log, Mills said he is not sure that's enough security to keep on top of things.

In addition to the residence at Emery Park in South Wales, the other dilapidated, vacant houses include a ranch-style home in Elma Meadows Park, a ranch at Sprague Brook Park in Glenwood, a two-story house at Como Park Lake in the Village of Lancaster, and the former 4-H Camp ranch-style facility in the Town of Sardinia.

“It would not be cost-effective to spend a single penny to rehabilitate any of these homes,” Mychajliw said.

The Collins administration poured some resources into rehabilitating some of the better residences, most notably the one at Wendt Beach, which underwent $36,000 in repairs. It later caused a stir in 2010 when Collins' environment and planning commissioner, Kathy Konst, sought to rent the residence for $650 a month, plus utilities. She changed her mind after an outcry when it was revealed that the Collins administration was setting rents with no input from the County Legislature and no leases were being required. Critics also questioned whether Konst was getting a sweetheart deal.

Today, five of the six habitable residences are occupied, with county employees paying less than private renters would because they also have to perform some park duties. The lease fees were updated in September 2013, according to Schinzel. However, the comptroller's audit found that the county still lacked a formal lease agreement for its tenants.

That assertion was disputed by the administration, which said it binds tenants to an occupancy agreement that was signed off on by the county attorney's office.

“It specifies what tenants have to do ... and what are the duties of the county as landlord,” said Deputy Budget Director Timothy Callan.

The comptroller's office – which conducted its audit between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2013 – also found that the county insufficiently screened tenants and that rental checks were not being deposited in a timely manner. Mychajliw said the lack of protocols opens the county up to potential losses if tenants don't pay their rent or damage the property.

The comptroller also expressed concerns about the rental charges, which, he said, were below market rates.

Schinzel said the county is getting fair market rent. He added that if the residences were not leased, they would be vacant and not generating any revenue at all, while the county would still be responsible for maintaining the properties.

Mills offered a possible alternative.

“Perhaps, if we think outside the box, they could be used for something other than residences. Maybe they could be leased out for special events, like they do with the shelters,” Mills said.

He acknowledged, though, that even under that scenario, the county would still be leasing the structures and maintaining responsibility for them.


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