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Democratic party chief's grant request stirs questions

An application submitted by the city's Democratic Committee chairman and his wife for a $10,000 grant for a project to turn a Main Street building into a wellness center has raised questions about whether elected Democratic officials should vote on the request.

Michael Lewis, city Democratic chairman, and his wife, Melinda Scime, have requested a micro-enterprise grant from the city's NFC Development Corp. for a project to renovate 1517 Main St.

Scime, a licensed psychologist and a yoga instructor, opened a private practice in the building in July and plans to move her yoga studio to the building. The grant would be part of a $137,000 project to renovate the outside of the building and add more commercial space to rent to other health and wellness practitioners.

Several City Council members said they are concerned it would be a conflict for elected officials who seek endorsements from the Democratic Party and benefit from its fundraising efforts to vote on the proposal.

Council Chairman Chris Robins said he is concerned about even a "perceived conflict" by approving a grant for Lewis.

"At no time do we want the image that he's getting something that wouldn't be given to everybody else," Robins said.

The NFC Development Corp., the city's banking arm, will vote Monday on the proposed grant. All five members of the City Council and Mayor Paul A. Dyster sit on the 19-member NFC board. The rest of the NFC directors are appointed from the community.

Councilman Sam Fruscione, who is running for re-election, said he plans to abstain from the vote.

"My concern is that it looks inappropriate for a Democratic Council and a Democratic mayor to be handing out a grant to the chairman of the Democratic Party," Fruscione said.

Fruscione is endorsed by the city Democratic Party, but said he is not aligned with Lewis on the Democratic Committee.

Lewis, a school psychologist, was elected chairman of the city committee a year ago.

Lewis, who is listed as a minority partner in the grant application, said the project is expected to cost about $137,000. In addition to the $10,000 grant, they have obtained a $72,000 commercial mortgage and plan to invest $30,000 of personal funds.

"The application has been submitted following the same procedures and processes that anybody else who would want this grant would follow," Lewis said. "My understanding is that those that have conflicts would abstain just as if they would for a different issue."

Lewis said he and Scime have submitted an amendment to their initial application to increase the estimated cost from $132,500 to $137,000.

The NFC Development Corp. board in November 2007 approved an $8,720 grant to then-Democratic Chairman Mickey Rimmen to add a new roof on a building he owned at 310-316 Niagara St. The money was disbursed in 2008 after Rimmen resigned from the committee post.

Dyster said grant applications are reviewed by NFC staff and said he first learned of Lewis' application Monday.

"You can't exclude people from participation in any grant or loan program because of their political affiliation," Dyster said.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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