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Connecting with Cuomo staff Falls residents cite problems that tear at fabric of community

Mark Smith wanted to know what could be done about vacant houses that are eroding neighborhoods.

Gloria Dolson said she was concerned that defendants in the city's Drug Court program are stuck in a "revolving door" that cycles them in and out of jail.

And Theresa McCabe spoke out for children living in unsafe conditions in apartments managed by absentee landlords.

These and dozens of other Niagara County residents brought their concerns to the senior staff of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday during a community forum in Conference Center Niagara Falls that drew nearly 600 residents, including students from three area high schools.

"This is not a rally we're having here today. It's a working meeting," said Leslie G. Leach, executive deputy attorney general. "We're here to connect with you, the citizens of Niagara County, to hear from you."

Leach spoke for Cuomo, who was scheduled to be at the forum but left Western New York early Wednesday morning to return to New York City to work on an investigation into the insurance firm American International Group.

Cuomo released a letter Wednesday stating that AIG had agreed to freeze millions of dollars in pay for former executives.

But the focus of the attorney general's staff members in Niagara Falls was on local issues. They fielded questions and complaints from dozens of residents who formed groups to talk about topics such as health care, the environment and civil rights.

Attorneys from the office also met with community leaders and groups earlier in the day.

Alphonso B. David, deputy bureau chief for civil rights, said representatives met with community leaders early Wednesday to discuss specific complaints of police misconduct and racial discrimination in Niagara Falls.

It was a follow-up to a public meeting in July in which residents asked the attorney general's office to look into the conduct of local law enforcement.

David said the office would investigate the complaints it received Wednesday to determine whether there has been a pattern of discrimination.

Several residents in said they were concerned that absentee landlords and out-of-state landowners were allowing properties to deteriorate throughout Niagara Falls.

"We've got an overabundance of housing in the Falls, and a lot of it is falling apart," said Smith, a member of the East Side Block Club. "We need to light a fire under somebody's rear end, possibly the city's."

Assistant Attorney General James Morrissey said the attorney general's office can prosecute cases where a property becomes the site of a "persistent pattern" of illegal activity but has limited authority to deal with other issues involving vacant housing.

Morrissey recommended that local block clubs look at actions taken by a task force -- known as Save Our Streets -- that has had success in Buffalo dealing with housing and vacant properties.

Cuomo staff members said they would use the complaints and concerns offered in the forum to determine what issues affect residents and what may need to be investigated.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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