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HOUSING AGENCY'S SPENDING ATTACKED
$124,000 BUDGETED FOR TRIPS, CELL PHONES AND OTHER PERKS

The agency that runs public housing in Buffalo set aside nearly $124,000 last July for trips, credit card spending, cell phones, insurance and stipends for its seven volunteer commissioners for this fiscal year.

Responding to a Buffalo News inquiry, authority officials confirmed that some commissioners in the first fourth months of the fiscal year traveled to housing conferences in San Francisco, Baltimore, Detroit and Washington, D.C. The tab exceeded $35,000.

Commissioners spent even more on trips the previous fiscal year, racking up at least $45,000 in expenses to attend conferences in Orlando, Tampa, New Orleans and other destinations. This is the same Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority that plans to abolish its police force and lay off all 26 officers by July 1 in order to balance its budget. It's also the same authority at risk of being labeled a "troubled agency" by the federal government if it is forced to dip into reserves to pay bills.

It's against this backdrop that the state control board is assailing perks that authority commissioners have enjoyed for years.

"I'm personally shocked," control board Executive Director Dorothy A. Johnson said of a document showing housing commissioners have a $40,000 travel budget and more than $80,000 in additional perks.

Gillian D. Brown, the authority's acting executive director, was quick to note that commissioners voluntarily stopped all travel last fall as finances worsened. "It's what we're doing now that should be the focus, and there has been no out-of-town travel since October," Brown said.

He added that a lot of the trips involved the two tenant-elected commissioners who went to conferences to glean information directly tied to their duties.

But some control board officials were upset last week when they scrutinized a breakdown of expenditures.

"Good heavens," Johnson said as she pointed to the $123,744 that has been budgeted for board perks. They include:

$36,598 in health benefits for five commissioners. Two board members have waived their right to insurance.

$11,000 in credit card expenses.

$8,500 for cell phones.

$8,025 for memberships in national housing associations.

$5,823 for dental insurance for six commissioners.

The authority chairman also receives a $2,500 annual stipend, while five members receive $2,000.

Johnson wondered aloud how such spending can be justified.

It can't be justified, said some furious Common Council members, who are demanding to see line-by-line spending records.

"It's outrageous," University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell said. "I want to know about every trip they've taken and every single dime they've spent."

The authority owns or operates 27 developments that house about 8,000 tenants in approximately 4,000 units. Its annual operating budget is about $30 million.

While the Council has no direct control over authority spending, lawmakers have confirmation powers over the five commissioners appointed by Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

Responding to increasing pressures, Masiello said it's time to review benefits given to housing commissioners.

Council Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola questioned the need to provide city cell phones to commissioners, noting that the board generally meets only once a month. Council members don't even have city cell phones, he said.

Brown said the agency recently decided it would no longer provide cell phones to commissioners but will reimburse them for phone expenses.

Brown finds himself in an awkward position. He is among the candidates to fill the executive director's position left vacant in February when Sharon M. West retired. She now heads the housing department in Tampa, Fla.

Meanwhile, the city comptroller's office is being asked to take the rare step of launching a performance audit of the authority. North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., a frequent authority critic, said he's convinced there's waste and inefficiency in the agency.

Brown insisted the audit would be a "waste of time," saying authority spending is already monitored by the federal government, the state, the control board and an outside auditor.

"But our budget is an open book. We have nothing to hide," said Brown. "We have no secret sources of money."

Officials from city Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo's office will meet with BMHA officials this week, but no decision has been made on whether to do an audit.

"We're in the very early exploratory stages," said Tony Farina, SanFilippo's executive assistant.

Golombek said he hopes city auditors will ultimately decide to scrutinize authority spending. He's convinced the agency can find ways to save its housing police, a division that costs about $2.4 million a year. "I'm hearing a lot of things about gamesmanship with money over there," said Golombek. "Some people view it as a patronage pit."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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