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The wrecking crew; As the city demolishes thousands of vacant homes, costs for the knockdowns almost doubled since 2005 -- but the number of demo firms doing the work shrank so that just a handful are making millions of dollars

Buffalo spent $73 million over the past 12 years to knock down some 5,800 vacant houses and other dilapidated buildings on city streets.

That's roughly the price of hiring 100 more cops or teachers for 10 years, or to redevelop the Statler Hotel. It's more demolitions than there are houses in the Village of Lancaster.

All that demolition removed hazardous eyesores but also left many city streets with vast areas of vacant lots.

And with the cost of city demolition tripling during those years, it also put millions of dollars into the pockets of a handful of demolition contractors, some with shady pasts.


*Albert J. Steele Jr., a former thief and prison escape artist, is now the city's premier demolition man. Steele's company made $11 million knocking down houses, almost all during the administration of Mayor Byron Brown.

*Geiter Done has received almost $6 million from Buffalo since 2006 to demolish city properties. It is owned by Michael P. Honer. He ran another company, Huron Recovery, that was forced into bankruptcy in 2006, leaving a string of bad debts, including some $30,000 to the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and about $30,000 more to the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., records show.

*Amir's Vision, which did a good chunk of demolition work for the Masiello administration -- $2.25 million in six years -- and $500,000 in work for the Brown administration in 2006, was subsequently banned from bidding on public contracts until 2013. The state says the company falsely and illegally claimed to be paying prevailing wages. But a company now operating at the same Buffalo address is called C&R Housing and did $1.35 million in work for the Brown administration through 2011.

The state is investigating whether the two companies are essentially the same.

But it's not just who is doing the demolitions that is raising questions. There's also the skyrocketing costs.

The Buffalo News obtained records for city demolition work from 2000 through 2011. The demolition data includes everything from garages and houses to commercial and industrial sites. The data does not include private demolitions or those performed by city development agencies.

The News' analysis found city demolitions are up 29 percent in the first six years of the Brown administration, compared with the last six years of the Masiello administration.

But costs are up 169 percent.

It nows costs, on average, $18,000 to $20,000 to knock down a dilapidated house in Buffalo, city officials said, compared with about $5,000 near the start and $9,000 at the end of the Masiello administration.

City officials blame the increase largely on state environmental fees associated with demolitions. The News, additionally, found that some city policies are likely responsible.

The News also found that Buffalo in recent years has demolished two to three times as many houses as Rochester and up to 10 times as many as Syracuse, two other upstate cities confronted with declining city neighborhoods.

And The News found that as city demolition spending grew, fewer demolition companies do business with Buffalo.

"You can make good money doing demolitions [in New York,] but I don't think it's easy money," said David M. Mazur, president of Empire Dismantlement, one of the city contractors.

>The top four

The bulk of the $19.7 million that went to demolish 2,600 buildings during the Masiello administration was shared with a dozen or so companies, each getting upward of $1 million to $2 million in city contracts over Masiello's last six years in office.

During the Brown years, four demolition companies got two-thirds of the $53 million spent on 3,200 demolitions.

Those top four:

*Steele's Hannah Demolition, which got $10.8 million from 2006 to 2011.

*Metro Environmental of Niagara Falls, which got $9.1 million.

*Empire Dismantlement of Grand Island, which got $8 million.

*Geiter Done, which got $5.7 million.

Two of the big four companies, Metro Environmental and Hannah Demolition, gave sizable campaign donations to Brown.

Demolition companies say the donations have no effect on who gets the business. City officials agree. All demolition work, they note, is publicly bid.

"I like the area. Some politicians I feel do the right thing for everyone. That is what I support," said Howard Hibbard, owner of Metro Environmental. Hibbard and his company gave the mayor $8,500 in campaign contributions.

Steele, of Hannah Demolition, said his company's donations of $7,000 are a sign of appreciation for Brown's willingness to give city work to an ex-con.

"He's never told me, 'You give me a donation, and I'll get you work,' " said Steele, who displays two photos of himself with the mayor on his office wall. "The mayor knows my background. He's given me a chance. A lot of people would never give an ex-convict a chance. I appreciate it, 100 percent."

Steele acknowledged that state and federal investigators have been asking him questions about his business. He says it's because of his past.

"I've had seven or eight audits within a six-month period," said Steele. "Workers' comp audit. Last year's payroll. And insurance. They found nothing."

The News learned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has an ongoing investigation into Buffalo demolitions. The FBI has also been investigating. Both agencies declined to comment when asked about their interest in Buffalo demolitions.

>Fewer demolitions

The $18,000 to $20,000 it costs to demolish a house in Buffalo is similar to what Rochester and Syracuse pay to knock down houses.

But these other cities knock down far fewer houses than Buffalo does. Rochester, with a population now nearing Buffalo's, knocks down 150 to 200 houses a year; Syracuse, with about half Buffalo's population, knocks down about 50 annually. Both cities have lost about a third of their populations since 1950.

Buffalo, which has lost about half its population since 1950, has knocked down as many as 500 to 700 properties a year, mostly houses, spending as much as $10 million to $13 million annually, in recent years.

The other cities said they haven't seen the huge spikes in demolition prices that Buffalo has experienced.

"It's gone up a little, but it's been pretty stable over the past five years," Bret Garwood, Rochester's director of building and housing development.

All the upstate officials said asbestos removal fees represent a big part of demolition costs. Of the $20,000 in fees, $12,000 is for asbestos removal, Garwood said.

Other demolition-related costs have also gone up, said Hibbard, from Metro Environmental.

"Water and sewer connections. Disposal. Everything has gone up," he said.

Beyond that, the News analysis found demolition costs generally spiked in concert with emergency demolitions -- which increased when the city was hit with a rash of fires in 2007, and again in 2009, when the city labeled as emergencies almost half of the record number of buildings knocked down. The buildings stood vacant for a long time and deteriorated to the point of being unsafe, according to city officials, who said they were able to knock them down in 2009 after getting additional money from the state.

Typically, during these emergency demolitions, asbestos-laden material remains in the house because the buildings are deemed unsafe for contractors to remove asbestos. All the debris is therefore treated as asbestos-tainted and subject to a higher billing rate -- sometimes double the non-asbestos rate -- when it goes to landfills. Demolitions deemed as emergencies are to be completed within a day of a contract being awarded.

James W. Comerford, Buffalo's commissioner of permits and inspections, disputes any connection between emergency demolitions and higher costs.

Traditional demolitions require removing asbestos before a demolition. Given the high cost of removing asbestos, traditional demolitions often cost more, he said, citing a specific case.

"It's a variable. It's the size of the house and the project that matters," Comerford said. "It costs $10 a square foot to remove asbestos."

Comerford added that emergency demolitions have dropped off now that the city has made progress on the backlog of houses on the demolition list.

"We are finally making some headway," Comerford said. "We are doing more houses that require us to remove the asbestos before demo, which I maintain is more costly in most cases."

There have been 99 emergency demolitions so far this year, compared with 350 in 2009, according to Comerford.

>Fewer companies bid

One of the reasons a few companies make big money from city demolitions is that fewer companies are now bidding on the work, The News found.

Some say that's because it's hard for many smaller companies to compete, given high fixed costs -- bonding, insurance, asbestos removal fees.

Others cite a recent city policy requiring a single company do both demolition and asbestos removal work, rather than bidding the two procedures out separately. The policy makes the process go smoother when one company does all the work, Comerford said.

Some contractors also said that stricter state environmental regulations and enforcement put some smaller companies out of business -- in some cases after the contractors got arrested for violating asbestos removal laws.

S.D. Specialty Services, for example, made $168,135 from the city in 2009 and 2010 before being accused last year of improperly handling asbestos on a job in Watertown. The case was dismissed, but it remains under investigation, and new charges could be filed. The company, owned by Sean Doctor, a former Buffalo Bills fullback who is now a Buffalo firefighter, is now out of the business.

"The federal charges were dismissed due to lack of a timely prosecution," said Doctor's attorney, Michael T. Kelly. Doctor denies any wrongdoing, Kelly said, adding that environmental laws on asbestos removal are "extremely complicated."

Topor Contracting of Buffalo, which performed $1.3 million in work for the city between 2000 and 2004, during the Masiello administration, is also out of business.

The company pleaded guilty in 2004 to falsely claiming it used state-certified air-monitoring gear and that a state-certified laboratory confirmed their work. Those documents pertained to work done in Buffalo in 2002.

Company owner Thomas Toporczyk was permanently barred from doing asbestos work in New York State. Topor Contracting was taken over in 2004 by one of its employees, Steele, who renamed it Hannah Demolition.

Currently, the firm hired to monitor asbestos removal at city demolition sites is under indictment for allegedly falsifying documents at Kensington Heights, a vacant public housing complex owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

Officials of JMD Environmental of Grand Island denied the charges, and the company continues to work under contract for the city. However, the state is expected to pull JMD's license soon, at which point the company will no longer be working for Buffalo, Comerford said.

From 2008 through 2011, JMD received $1.1 million from city government -- separate from the Housing Authority -- for air and asbestos sampling and monitoring, according to city records.

>Life turned around

Comerford was aware of Albert Steele's criminal past but said that, from everything he's seen, the one-time thief and jail breaker turned his life around. He does a good job demolishing buildings for the city, Comerford said.

Comerford said he wasn't aware of the past legal problems of Amir's Vision and the Shareef family. Nor was he aware of the financial entanglements of Michael Honer, who owns Geiter Done.

One of the Shareef businesses, Amir's Vision, was sanctioned by the state in 2009 for not paying prevailing wage, as required, and as the company said it had been.

City records show that Amir's Vision was being run by Ellen Shareef, the wife of Jabril Shareef. Jabril Shareef faced related legal problems in 1998, when he was convicted of paying workers at his demolition business, Shareef Enterprises, $6 or $7 an hour rather than the prevailing union wage of $21.89 an hour as required by his Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority contract. Jabril Shareef was sentenced to two years in prison.

Jabril Shareef now heads C&R Housing, the demolition company currently working for the city, according to state incorporation records. But city officials said Ellen Shareef, who identified herself as the office manager, typically represents C&R on city demolition matters.

C&R Housing and Amir's Vision "are two separate corporations, owned by different people," said Ellen Shareef, "I have no ownership in C&R, and my husband had no ownership in Amir's."

Geiter Done, owned by Michael Honer, is located on Greene Street, as was Honer's previous business, Huron Recovery.

Huron Recovery in 2003 borrowed $45,000 from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and $50,000 from the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. to purchase equipment for the tire recycling company.

Honer is listed on state documents as chairman and CEO of Huron, a position he held until November 2005, when the other company stockholders voted him out of the top spot. He remained a 50 percent shareholder in the company. Three of Huron's creditors filed papers in 2006 putting the company in bankruptcy, according to court papers.

Honer opened Geiter Done in September 2005.

Honer did not return numerous calls from The News to comment, but Honer's bankruptcy attorney, Lawrence C. Brown, said Huron Recovery in the past 18 months repaid its loans to BERC and the IDA's Regional Development Corp.

Huron Recovery and Geiter Done are separate companies, Brown said.

"I will say this for Mr. Honer and his company, Geiter Done -- they've done a darn good job doing the difficult job of handling demolitions," Brown said. "Geiter Done has a good track record and has done very good work."

Comerford also said Geiter Done and C&R Housing have done good work for the city.

Nonetheless, Comerford said, he and City Attorney Timothy Ball would discuss the information they learned from The News about the two companies.

"We're always looking. We're the Law Department," Ball said.

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MONDAY: Albert Steele's journey from car thief to demolition man.


Demolition windfall : Four companies got two-thirds of the city's demolition work from 2006-2011

Hannah Demolition - $10 million

Metro Contracting - $9.1 million

Empire Dismantlement - $8 million

Geiter Done - $5.7 million


Whois getting the money?

Four demolition firms received two-thirds of the $53 million the city spent on demolitions from 2006-2011

Hannah Demolition, Buffalo

Year incorporated: 2004

Owner: Albert Steele

City payments: $10.8 million

Campaign contributions: $11,500; including $7,000 to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown

One-time thief and prison escape artist who says he got into the demolition business after giving up his life of crime. Does most of his work for City of Buffalo.

Metro Contracting &Environmental, Niagara Falls

Year incorporated: 1997

Owner: Harold G. Hibbard

City payments: $9.1 million

Campaign contributions: $49,195; including $8,500 to Brown.

Does demolition work in Niagara and Erie counties. Much of its Buffalo work involves larger contracts. Hibbard's family runs several businesses, including Lewiston custard stand.

Empire Dismantlement, Grand Island

Year Incorporated: 2000

Owner: David M. Mazur

City payments:$8 million

Campaign Contributions: $5,500; none to Brown.

Major demolition company that does work in 16 states. Focuses on larger contracts in city. Former partner was Niagara County businessman Jerome Williams.

Geiter Done, Buffalo

Year Incorporated: 2005

Owner: Michael P. Honer

Citypayments: $5.7 million

Campaign contributions: None found

Former owner of tire recycling company that fell behind on loans from city and county development agencies. While Geiter Done makes millions, Honer's former company is in bankruptcy.

Note: Campaign contributions and city payments 2006-2011.

Source: NewYork State Department of State, NewYork Board of Elections, Buffalo News analysis of Buffalo demolition data.