Acting Corporation Counsel Timothy G. Bax has begun steps to collect a two-month-old water and sewer bill of $110,451 from the former Unity Park Apartments.
If payment is not received within 15 days, Bax said he is poised to take the matter to court to try to force the private owners of the North End apartments to pay the water and sewer charges dating back to 1996 that allegedly were the result of meter tampering.
Bax has sent a letter to Niagara Park Phase II Houses Inc. demanding payment of the principal amount of $104,199.94 plus a late charge of $6,252 for water charges for a portion of the former Unity Park apartments. The letter was sent in care of Signature Housing Solutions Inc., a Rochester company that manages both Apple Walk and Niagara Walk, the other section of the apartments. Apple Walk Houses Inc. shows no unpaid taxes on file, while Niagara Park Phase II Houses Inc. owes tax, sewer and water bills plus penalties of $705,000 dating back to 1991, Bax said.
Signature's management came under fire this summer when a group of tenants complained about alleged unsafe and unsanitary conditions that they claimed was the result of management neglect. A task force composed of a number of health and housing agencies from the local to federal government level was formed, but has not issued any findings.
Meanwhile, the residents and their advocates including local ministers and Niagara County Legislator Renae Kimble, who represents the district where the apartments are located, have called on the city to withhold the federal housing subsidies, which some tenants in the housing units receive.
City lawyers and officials from the inspections and community development departments all have been investigating the complaints as well as what the city legally can do about them, although not as quickly as Kimble and the tenants would like.
City Administrator Anthony J. Restaino said the complaints about the living conditions as well as the unpaid water, sewer and tax bills that total $650,000 are equally disturbing.
"I'm very concerned about the management there because they are behind in water and sewer and back taxes. The rents include the utilities. If they're getting rents subsidized, they're getting them on time," Restaino said, adding that it's up to the company to pay the utility bills that tenants have already paid them for.
The city cannot shut the water off because of public health issues, he said. And, despite an attempt by Ralph F. Aversa, city water director, to negotiate an agreement with Signature, Restaino said "we, the administration, have not come to any agreement with the management company out there. And, I haven't come up with anything I'd be comfortable taking to the Council."
Aversa announced on Aug. 20, a month after the last invoice, that he and Laurie Dunning, vice president of Signature Housing, had negotiated an agreement under which the city would have accepted 60 percent of the $104,199 bill based on water consumption records for previous years. The settlement never was submitted to the City Council for approval or disapproval.
Bax said that while Aversa was not precluded from entering into negotiations, neither is the administration bound by them, and they also would have to be ratified by the Council "so the negotiations have no effect."
Neither Aversa nor Dunning, who was out of her office because of illness, could be reached to comment.
Restaino said he has asked Aversa to discuss the alleged meter tampering with Police Chief Ernest C. Palmer.
"My concern as a city official and even as resident of the city is that they obviously do owe back water, sewer and taxes and that's a problem. And, coupled with that is I don't believe that anybody should have to live that way. The vacant apartments the way they were (unsecured) that's just an invitation whether it's drugs or other types of crime. I think the management company should be held accountable," Restaino said.