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Marine Drive water leak runs up $1.6 million bill

A big chunk of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s $1.7 million unpaid water bill is for water that no one drank or used for cooking or cleaning, according to a Buffalo lawmaker.

Instead, it was the result of a years-long water main leak at the BMHA’s Marine Drive apartments, said Lovejoy Councilman Richard A. Fontana, who chairs the Common Council’s Finance Committee. Of the $1.7 million in unpaid BMHA water bills from 2005 to 2008, Fontana said, $1.6 million traces back to Marine Drive

And much of the $1.6 million, he said, traces to a three-year period, 2005 to 2007, when the water main was leaking.

“Water was wasted,” Fontana said. “You had a huge leak. The water was going into the river.”

Fontana said he bases his claim on conversations he’s had with people from the BMHA, the water board and others.

BMHA officials had no immediate response Tuesday to Fontana’s claim.

But Joseph Mascia, the suspended tenant-commissioner who lives in Marine Drive apartments, said residents were well aware of the leak because it was affecting their water pressure and several times flooded a boiler room floor, resulting in problems with the heating system. The leak was in a pipe, Mascia said, that went through several buildings.

Mascia, as well as a former Marine Drive employee who asked not to be identified, said the leak went on beyond the dates Fontana mentioned, through at least 2010.

During that time, the apartments were owned by the BMHA, but managed first by a private company, Hutchens Kissling, then by a nonprofit organization, the Erie Regional Housing Development Corp.

The apartment managers for years tried to find the leak, the former employee said. They knew about it, he said, because the water bills were skyrocketing.

“They were looking,” he said. “They brought a private contractor in. They couldn’t find it. Finally they found it.”

The water issue came up Tuesday when the Council’s Finance Committee invited a representative of the city Comptroller’s Office to discuss the BMHA’s unpaid bills.

The Comptroller’s Office claims the BMHA owes the city about $3.6 million. The figure includes about $1.9 million in unpaid gas bills as well as the $1.7 million in unpaid water bills from 2005-2008.

The gas bill also was from the Marine Drive apartments, which was being managed at the time by Hutchens Kissling.

Council members Tuesday indicated the situation is more complex that just saying the BMHA owes the city money for these unpaid bills, and several Council members indicated they don’t anticipate receiving any funds from the BMHA to cover the costs. But the bills represent larger issues, such as how this situation occurred, and whether anyone – other than the BMHA – owes the city money.

Fontana said he doesn’t believe costs associated with the water leak need to be paid. Typically, he said, the water board does not collect on charges from leaks.

With the heating bill, on the other hand, the city paid the bill, Fontana said. The arrangement, he said, is typical of the one the city has with other community buildings. The city pays the bill, and is then reimbursed by the operator.

But in this case, Fontana said, the city from 1961 to 2011 also operated under a 50-year contract that required the city to pay any debts accrued by Marine Drive, a state-owned housing complex.

As a result of that contract, Fontana said, the city was responsible for heating bills if Hutchens Kissling didn’t pay them.

But the question, Fontana said, is why Hutchens Kissling was unable to pay the bill, since Marine Drive had not previously been running a deficit, Fontana said.

Hutchens Kissling was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

Fontana said he’s like to see all parties involved get together to straighten the situation out, and also see if any changes in city procedures are needed.