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As FBI probe continues, Cowart retires as Niagara Falls housing chief

NIAGARA FALLS - Stephanie W. Cowart, who was suspended with pay as executive director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority as word of an FBI investigation of the authority surfaced this summer, is stepping down.

Stephanie Cowart

Stephanie Cowart

The authority's board of directors accepted her retirement letter Tuesday, as a result of what appeared to be negotiations between Cowart and the authority. However, the retirement isn't effective until March 21, and no one would say why that date was chosen, although a news release said the date was agreed upon by the board and Cowart.

The board's resolution, as well as Cowart's letter, said she will not be paid for any unused sick or vacation time, but she will continue to be paid her $145,000-a-year salary until March 21, while she remains on leave.

Rev. Kevin Dobbs, the board chairman, said Cowart was required to give at least 60 days' notice of her departure. Asked if the four-month delay in the effective date was a way for Cowart to make up for not being paid for the unused sick and vacation time, Dobbs said, "I don't think she's making up for anything."

But the bigger mystery remains why Cowart was placed on leave in the first place. She hasn't worked since July 21, and Dobbs refused to answer questions about that Tuesday.

"That'll come out down the road," he said. "We don't know what the FBI or the federal investigation is going to come up with."

The board approved the retirement unanimously after a 56-minute closed-door session. A prepared statement from the board said, "In light of the ongoing federal investigation, Board Chair Dobbs stated that the board thought it best to accept Ms. Cowart's decision to retire."

Neither Cowart nor her attorney attended Tuesday's meeting.

Cowart, who worked at the housing authority for 33 years, the last 19 as executive director, had a contract that would have expired Nov. 30, 2018.

Her letter said, "I have enjoyed serving the residents of the NFHA for 33 years, and working with collaborative partners to strengthen our surrounding community. I remain dedicated to the legacy and mission of the NFHA and look forward to the authority's continued success in empowering and enriching residents and building strong communities."

The board's statement included a quote from Dobbs: "Ms. Cowart's decision to retire without returning to work at the authority will allow the board to begin its search for a new leader immediately and will allow the authority to move forward without unnecessary distractions. We appreciate both her service in the past, and her decision to move on at this time by retiring."

Cowart's deputy, Patricia Barone, has been acting director since July 21. She said she hasn't talked to the board about seeking the permanent position. Asked if she wants it, Barone said, "I guess, if it was offered."

Barone has been earning her base salary of $92,000 a year, plus $1,500 a month extra to fill in for Cowart. She also was paid a $6,000 lump sum for taking on the extra duties.

Cowart will receive health insurance through the authority in retirement. Barone said Cowart is entitled to that as someone who is more than 55 years old and has worked for the authority for at least 17 years.

Also Tuesday, the board created a new director of finance position and hired Mary Jean Buddenhagen, the current controller of the Niagara Falls Water Board, to fill the job, starting Dec. 19 at a salary of $92,500 a year. She replaces Evelyn Buffone, the housing authority's accountant, who is retiring at the end of the year after 22 years of service. She was earning nearly $68,000 a year. The accountant post is being abolished.

Barone said Buddenhagen worked about 20 years for the housing authority before departing for the Water Board about 5 1/2 years ago.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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