With Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley asking questions about the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s busy schedule of travel to conferences, it is safe to say that appearances matter.
The money spent on travel kept the person in charge of an arguably failing housing system away from the city for more than 150 days over the past four years.
Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants answers. The public deserves those answers. The Republican wrote the BMHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asking about the use of taxpayer money for all that travel.
Grassley also wants to get an account of the time that BMHA Executive Director Dawn E. Sanders-Garrett spends attending conferences and other out-of-town meetings. None of this attention from Washington bodes well for the housing authority’s leadership. And it’s about time.
The frequent traveler miles that Sanders-Garrett and some of her staff have been piling up caught the senator’s attention following a Buffalo News report last month detailing $120,000 in travel costs from 2013 through 2016.
The News’ analysis, written by staff reporter Susan Schulman, also found that Sanders-Garrett spent all or part of 158 days out of town over the four years involving 34 conferences and related meetings. The 158 days include weekends and weekdays, as well as some extra days that Sanders-Garrett spent in or near a conference city on her own time and using her personal funds.
The senator has long been concerned about housing authority spending practices and what he believes has been inadequate oversight by HUD.
Sanders-Garrett insists she is making an effort to keep travel costs down. She says she is not using HUD money, but rather BMHA money from other sources, including fees for an advertising sign on housing authority property. HUD funds are being used for other BMHA travel, however.
The News analysis noted that the costs would have been even higher except that one sponsoring organization pays for all travel costs to its meetings. The HAI Group is a public housing insurance organization created by public housing agencies throughout the country. Sanders-Garrett is one of about 150 members of its policy-setting committee.
The travel spending would be a minor distraction if the BMHA was a smoothly running agency taking care of the housing needs of Buffalo’s poor. Instead, there are widespread maintenance issues and many units at the Perry Homes are uninhabitable despite a waiting list for housing.
It is long past time to deal with the real problems at the housing authority. It’s too bad it may take a senator from Iowa to get some answers.