City Housing Court Judge Henry J. Nowak caused a stir in his first day on the bench about two years ago, when he imposed a 10-day jail term and a $1,000 fine on an offender.
The sentence was no fluke.
Since taking over in January 2003, Nowak has imposed more fines than his predecessors had in the previous four years combined. The total -- running into the millions of dollars -- far exceeds what any previous housing judge has imposed.
Nowak attributes the higher total to a greater number of cases.
"The only thing really different now is the inspectors seem to be writing more cases for court, thanks in great part to the mayor's recommendation they write more cases," Nowak said.
Nowak's fines totaled almost $1 million last year. This year, through August, Nowak had imposed more than $2.2 million in fines, City Court figures show.
From 1998 through 2002 -- before Nowak -- all Housing Court fines had totaled $525,712.
In the 1990s, Michael Broderick and Frank Sedita imposed more fines than Nowak during their two-year terms on the bench. But Sedita's fines totaled slightly more than $581,000, while Broderick imposed $112,050 in fines in 1998.
A one-word change in the building inspectors' complaint form also helps to explain the increase.
The form previously cited violations found on a certain date. At Nowak's suggestion, the form now indicates a violation "from" a certain date. Before the change, the maximum fine for each violation was $1,500. With the change, the fines now run $1,500 per violation per day.
"The law always existed that every day constitutes a new violation," Nowak said. "It was just a matter of changing the form."
Many of the fines have been imposed on out-of-state banks and lending institutions that haven't repaired the properties or completed foreclosure actions, the judge said.
City Court records also show that, compared with his predecessors, Nowak is more likely to sentence defendants to community service and has sentenced fewer offenders to jail. The 2,579 hours of community service that Nowak imposed last year averages 26 hours for each of the 98 defendants.
Neighborhood activists like the community service sentences because they put scofflaws to work improving neighborhoods by picking up garbage, painting houses, building porches and planting flowers.
Most of all, the scofflaws -- who may live in the suburbs -- spend time in neighborhoods plagued by their own problem properties.
"They get a taste of what it is like to be there all day," said Rose Yager of the West Side Neighborhood Partnership, who called Nowak's sentencing record "terrific."
Yager is among the dozen Housing Court liaisons who attend Nowak's court once a week and provide information about how the cited properties are affecting the neighborhood.
"When you find out the neighborhood concerns and drastic effects that some of these properties can have on a neighborhood, the harsher remedies appear more appropriate," Nowak said.
"In years past, I think the judges would have done that, too, if they had the information," Nowak added. "They just didn't have the information because they didn't have liaisons."
Not everybody agrees Nowak's fines are such a good idea.
Fines on property investors will not improve the city's bad business climate, said James Ostrowski, a Buffalo attorney.
"Why would an investor want to go into a city where he'll be hauled into Housing Court and become a scapegoat for all of the problems that he never created?" Ostrowski asked.
Fines do not resolve the underlying problem with Buffalo housing, which is poverty, he said.
But Nowak pointed out that most of the fines probably are not paid.
"A lot of the fines have been reduced to judgments and are sitting over in the Erie County clerk's office right now," he said.
Most of the judgments involve corporate fines, Nowak said.
"By setting a large judgment, the next time that bank or mortgage company tries to transact business in the county, that judgment pops up," he said. "It may create a real mess, in which case I get a frenzied call asking how it can be lifted. And that's good."