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AmeriCorps, West Seneca sort out their money at last
$1.8 million repayment to town is over 5 years

The money was intermingled for so long that, all these years later, it was hard to sort out.

But when Western New York AmeriCorps and the Town of West Seneca decided that the time had come to split up, the line had to be drawn.

So the lawyers for both parties slogged through the paperwork, divvied up the bank accounts and drew up a separation agreement.

As a result, AmeriCorps owes the town $1.88 million, to be repaid over the next five years. That includes money the nonprofit will repay directly to the town, as well as money that AmeriCorps will collect from various funding sources and then forward to the town.

"That agreement really represents over a decade of AmeriCorps serving in West Seneca and [operating] as part of the town government," said Mark P. Lazzara, chief executive officer of Western New York AmeriCorps.

Locally, AmeriCorps started more than a decade ago under the auspices of the West Seneca Youth Bureau. With just a few employees at first, it did not cost much for the town to advance AmeriCorps money for payroll and other expenses until federal grants arrived for reimbursements.

But over the years, the focus shifted within Lazzara's dual role as executive director of the Youth Bureau and CEO of AmeriCorps. More and more of his time was devoted to AmeriCorps. He became increasingly successful at landing federal grants, and the nonprofit's payroll swelled to include hundreds of people.

In recent years, AmeriCorps outgrew its home at the Burchfield Nature & Art Center on Union Road in the town. And with the political shift on the Town Board after Paul T. Clark's departure as town supervisor, AmeriCorps fell under increasing scrutiny from town officials. There was far less tolerance for the town to be advancing money for AmeriCorps while state and federal grant payments trickled in.

"It's like the child whose time had come to leave the house," West Seneca Comptroller Robert J. Bielecki said.

Critics of the Town Board say West Seneca lost money on the agreement. By letting AmeriCorps spread its repayment over five years, the town is losing interest income that it might have earned.

West Seneca officials acknowledge that the town took something of a hit in the agreement -- probably about $30,000 a year in interest, Bielecki said. At the same time, though, officials say that it would not be realistic to ask AmeriCorps to pay the entire amount at once.

The agreement gives AmeriCorps a manageable timeline to pay the town while establishing itself as an independent nonprofit operating out of South Buffalo, town officials say.

"Mark [Lazzara] is good at his job. They'll continue to be successful, and that's important to us, because we'll be paid back all the money," Town Supervisor Wallace C. Piotrowski said.

The town expects about $889,338 to come directly from AmeriCorps. The biggest chunk -- $409,338 -- is due by June 1. The rest will be paid in installments of $8,000 a month for five years. AmeriCorps has already made the first two payments, town officials said.

AmeriCorps has also agreed to collect an additional $991,758 on behalf of the town from half a dozen state and federal grant sources. This includes funds that are still owed for work that was done a few years ago, including more than $190,000 for relief work that AmeriCorps did in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

AmeriCorps also owes the town $75,000 in back rent for use of the Burchfield facility in 2009. That payment was due March 1, according to the agreement. Lazzara said the town would receive the money by the end of March.

"I'm assuming it's coming in the next few days," Piotrowski said.

The town and AmeriCorps also have laid to rest concerns that some residents raised over items that were removed from the Burchfield facility when AmeriCorps moved out. When those concerns were first raised about two weeks ago, town officials said they needed to research who owned which things, including two television sets and some furniture.

Lazzara said that in the midst of the move, a few tables and chairs were mistakenly taken by AmeriCorps but were promptly returned once the error came to light. Beyond that, he said a nonprofit group -- also named the Burchfield Nature & Art Center -- asked him to take the TVs and some antique benches to store for it. The town had evicted the Burchfield group from the building.

"I was asked to take almost everything because BNAC was going out of the building," Lazzara said. "I was always planning on leaving a television and a bench. But they said to take everything. They owned them, not the town."

In the last week, the town and AmeriCorps negotiated an agreement on the return of a TV and a bench to the town. Lazzara said the town did not originally own those items, but he agreed to return them to resolve the situation.

Town officials agree that everything has been sorted out.

In a recent letter to Lazzara, Town Attorney Shawn P. Martin wrote, "All items due the Town of West Seneca have been accounted for and remain at the Burchfield property."

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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