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Editorial: Examining the BMHA

It really doesn’t matter why the HUD inspector general decided to conduct a wide-ranging audit into how Buffalo’s public housing agency spent tens of millions of dollars over the last couple of years.

What matters is that the audit is being done – and that it produces action..

The results, although not expected for several weeks, cannot come quick enough for taxpayers or the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority’s numerous residents, some who have complained about poor housing conditions.

There is a strained history there between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the public housing agency. HUD threatened a takeover a few years ago but stopped short.
Now is the chance to dig into the hornet’s nest. The federal agency may find no financial discrepancies but that may be wishful thinking. Investigators should keep the public informed, leaving out no details about what they find. The public, which underwrites the authority, has a compelling interest in the conclusion as do the people who rely upon it for shelter.

Meanwhile, auditors from the HUD’s Department of Inspector General and BMHA officials are expected to meet in what will be the first step in the audit process. The review is expected to take at least eight to 10 weeks to complete.

HUD officials were not specific about what prompted the audit. Some audits have derived from complaints and others are done randomly throughout the year to keep an eye on how federal funds are spent, according to a HUD spokesman.

And then there have been complaints, one of which resulted in the most recent audit, in 2015. Then-Housing Authority Commissioner Joseph A. Mascia complained about BMHA spending on police and outside attorneys. While that audit found appropriate payments for police services, it criticized the agency’s procedures when it came to hiring outside legal counsel. The audit also questioned $211,000 in legal expenses.

By his own fault, Mascia is no longer on the board. He was removed in 2016 for making racist comments aimed at the mayor and BMHA Executive Director Dawn E. Sanders-Garrett, and other high-profile targets, all African-American. Those comments, made while having a private conversation with a friend, were secretly recorded.

Mascia continues his role as squeaky wheel and continues to complain, contacting the inspector general on a variety of topics, from spending $80,000 on still-boxed battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors to $350,000 allocated for garbage trucks that he says were never purchased. He wants the Inspector General to follow up on the 2015 audit.

These are good questions, and while they were submitted by someone who severely damaged his own credibility, they should nonetheless be followed up by the Inspector General, whose office told the housing authority that it will review operating funds from January 2016 through December 2017.

A financial audit is only the start of what needs to occur at the BMHA. The authority requires a top-to-bottom examination of its policies and practices. The organization’s success can be judged, in part, on the living conditions of its residents. It should be ashamed of what some of them look like. That needs to change.

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