City Hall's fiscal watchdog will audit the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority following disclosures that commissioners set aside $124,000 for trips, cell phones, insurance and other perks for themselves.
The Buffalo News disclosed that in the first four months of the fiscal year, some commissioners traveled to housing conferences in San Francisco, Baltimore, Detroit and Washington, D.C.
City Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo said an agency that is having difficulties paying for vital public housing services will have a tough time justifying such perks.
"They cannot be running a Club Med down there," said SanFilippo. "We're going to aggressively pursue an audit. These are public funds, and they have an obligation to be using those funds responsibly."
The BMHA's acting executive director said auditors will be greeted by an "open door." But Gillian D. Brown insisted that the agency is complying with all federal spending regulations. He added that the agency is already closely monitored by federal and state officials and the control board.
"I don't want to get into a public argument with Comptroller SanFilippo. If he thinks this is an appropriate use of a dwindling city budget, he's more than welcome to waste his staff's time and money."
SanFilippo bristled at the comment.
"It's never a waste of time to perform an audit that looks at spending by public agencies, reviews ethics and reinforces accountability," he said.
The audit was requested by North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who was furious over a cost-cutting move by the authority to abolish the housing police force and lay off all 26 officers by July 1. Golombek believes there are inefficiencies in an authority that he has branded a "patronage pit."
Officials can't remember the last time the city comptroller audited the BMHA. The agency is an independent entity, although the mayor appoints five of the seven commissioners. The Common Council can confirm or reject the appointments, but city officials have no power over how the authority spends its money.
It operates 27 developments that house about 8,000 tenants. Its annual operating budget is about $30 million.
Housing Authority Commissioner Charles J. Flynn Jr. has served on the board since 1999 and has frequently assailed policies, claiming "waste and corruption" are rampant.
"There's no oversight. The rules are that if you have four votes, you can steal anything you want," said Flynn, whose term doesn't expire for three years.
But Flynn is among the commissioners who receive some perks that have been criticized by the control board. Most commissioners receive $2,000 annual stipends, while the chairman receives $2,500. Most commissioners also receive health, dental and life insurance.
Control Board Executive Director Dorothy A. Johnson said she was "shocked" to learn that $123,774 was set aside this fiscal year for perks for commissioners, including a $40,000 travel budget.
Brown said commissioners voluntarily suspended all travel last October, adding that the focus should be on actions that have been occurring in recent months.
"We continue to make necessary cuts," he said.