A day care facility already approved by the state and under construction on Main Street hit a snag Tuesday in the Common Council when a key committee questioned the facility's relationship to the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse's controversial Jeremiah Partnership.
The Council's Finance Committee tabled allocation of $764,000 in state funds for the day care center at 1461 Main after The Buffalo News reported on Saturday that the project was sponsored by the Jeremiah Partnership, which has been accused of conspiracy and racketeering in a civil lawsuit by NRP Corp, a competing developer from Cleveland. NRP alleges that the partnership conspired to get a job for Stenhouse in connection with the NRP project.
"We're to do business with this person who has a sword of Damocles hanging over his head?" asked Council President David A. Franczyk. "I'm uncomfortable with that. You're talking three-quarters of a million dollars here."
Council members also criticized procedures that allowed the project to begin construction back in May without approval from the Council and the comptroller, even though the city essentially acts as a "pass-through" agency for funds pledged by the Empire State Development Corp.'s RESTORE program.
"My concern is that you have a developer starting a project without authorization from the Council or the Comptroller's Office," said South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, chairman of the Finance Committee. "They should have waited until the project was vetted and approval given."
The Tuesday tabling did not terminate the project but delayed its finalization with the City of Buffalo for at least two weeks. It came after Brendan R. Mehaffey, executive director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning who had avoided interviews on the subject, appeared in Council Chambers to answer questions.
The project's only supporter on the Finance Committee was Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto who voted against tabling.
However, Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith, who is not a member of the committee but attended the meeting, also voiced support. "The city has no skin in this game; it's just a pass-through for the state," Smith said. "Let's just get this project going. It's a good project and a clean project."
But Franczyk led the charge to at least slow down the process, noting that the project was under the control of an entity accused in a lawsuit of conspiracy and racketeering.
"The people who file these lawsuits are officers of the court and do not file frivolous lawsuits," he said.
Smith countered that the rights of Stenhouse and the Jeremiah Partnership should be respected, too. "I could sue you and say you stole my suit," he told Franczyk. "That means you can't do anything because of my lawsuit against you? That's not right."
The $896,075 day care construction project is located next to the Bethel Head Start administrative offices at 1461 Main, between Utica and Ferry streets. It involves renovating a vacant 8,000-square-foot building, demolishing a garage, building a new 1,024-square-foot garage and repaving a parking lot, according to documents supplied to the Council.
The $1.4 million lawsuit filed by NRP in June accuses Mayor Byron W. Brown, Smith and Stenhouse, who heads the Jeremiah Partnership, an East Side faith-based development organization, of conspiring to get Stenhouse or members of a development group associated with him a job in a proposed housing project.
Brown put a halt to the housing project when NRP declined to go along with the alleged requirements, the suit claims.
But Stenhouse said Tuesday that a key development that would provide much needed day care services and renovate the vacant building on Main is now unnecessarily stymied.
He also noted the project was started in 2009, long before the NRP lawsuit. He questioned why a lawsuit he says is without merit should cause the Council to block the project.
"I believe that in this country you are still innocent until proven guilty," said Stenhouse, pastor of Bethel AME Church. "An accusation should not stop a project from going forward."
"This project is not about me," he added. "It's about taking a building that has been vacant for 20 years and providing much needed facilities for day care."
He also said the Jeremiah Partnership stands to earn no profits from the project and even used its own money to start construction while awaiting reimbursement from the state.
"We were given permission to incur expenses by the state because we did not anticipate this kind of political maneuvering and delay," he told The News, adding that he will be happy to appear before the Council to answer any questions.
Kearns said the project is not dead but only "tabled and waiting to be acted on."
"We hope someone who is the beneficiary of this project will come and explain," he said.