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Audit criticizes Tonawanda Housing Authority for bad management, high vacancies

The Tonawanda Housing Authority doesn't have a website, but its employees used office computers for online shopping and to browse porn sites.

That was one of the findings – along with unfair treatment of tenants, high vacancy rates and missed opportunities to receive revenue – of a critical audit of the City of Tonawanda authority that was released Thursday by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli's office.

DiNapoli said the housing authority's staff discriminated against applicants for housing by giving preferential treatment to acquaintances and applicants paying full-market value for housing instead of to the neediest.

"The auditors discovered under the previous administration there was a disregard, even contempt for housing applicants. There were also situations were some applicants were getting preferential treatment," said DiNapoli.

The audit examined authority practices between 2013 to 2016, before a new administration took over the authority.

It criticized the authority management under Paul M. Fitzsimmons, who retired as the authority's top executive last year after more than 25 years of employment. His bookkeeper, Denise Winters, also retired shortly after he left. A third part-time clerical person also left the office. Fitzsimmons did not respond to a request for comment. Members of the authority's Board of Directors and DiNapoli said these retirements were unrelated to the audit.

"We really just found poor practices that did not serve the tenant or the authority well," said DiNapoli.

The housing authority manages a 257-unit apartment complex that consists of four main buildings and has an annual budget of approximately $1 million.

DiNapoli's audit found questionable applicant rejections and wait lists at the THA resulted in a consistently high vacancy rate. Nearly 33 percent of the senior housing units and 9 percent in all other housing were vacant as of March 31, well above the 5 percent rate recommended by the state. The average vacancy period for the units was two years, with three units that remained vacant for more than eight years.

DiNapoli said these high vacancy rates deprived affordable housing to eligible applicants and also resulted in a potential loss in revenue of $72,000 to $117,000.

DiNapoli said there had been poor communication between Fitzsimmons and the authority board, and at times the board was provided with inaccurate information about the authority vacancy rates.

Board President Leo Meyer, who was president for the past three years, said he believed Fitzsimmons did care about the authority.

"If there had been an audit 25 years ago maybe things would have been different. We have guidance now," Meyer told The Buffalo News after the press conference.

Dale Kokanovich, who succeeded Fitzsimmons as executive secretary prior to the audit, said he was left with one remaining part-time clerical employee from the previous staff when he took over as director a year ago. He said he came into the position with a different perspective, a "different set of eyes." But he said there were some things that were deemed to be urgent and he sat down within days of his hiring and began working with an auditor and the board president.

DiNapoli said Kokanovich has "embraced the findings" of the comptroller's first audit of the housing authority.

One major change planned will be better computer security. The audit found the housing authority's computers were hit by ransomware several years ago, which it was able to decrypt. Kokanovich said upgrading the computer security will be addressed right away.

Kokanovich said he will also take steps to be more transparent with the tenants, the authority board and the City of Tonawanda so "they can see we are trying to rebuild our reputation."

Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis said he appoints members to the authority Board of Directors, but the authority acts independently from his administration.

As mayor, and previously as Fourth Ward councilor, Davis said he has heard complaints about excessive wait times to get housing, that apartments were held for tenants willing to pay a maximum rent, rather than those needing subsidies, and that some applicants were given preference because they knew somebody on the authority staff.

Davis said the new management has been very responsive.

"They have gotten back on what I believe is the right track," said Davis.

Kokanovich said the Tonawanda Housing Authority should finally unveil a website in June, which he said should improve tenant relations by making it easier for tenants to apply online for housing.

"I have a gigantic smile on my face. We are doing good things here and good works with the tenants," he told The News.

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