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BMHA chief's new mantra: 'Share the work and don't split the bids'

The head of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority plans to revamp the agency's purchasing, with fewer employees involved, and ensuring those that are follow this mantra: "Share the work and don't split the bids."

"That's not rocket science. It should not be insurmountable," said Interim Executive Director Gillian Brown.

Brown, who was appointed to the interim job at the end of March, said he has been working for the past few months on a staffing reorganization that he believes will increase BMHA supervision and address purchasing issues that were raised in an article published Sunday by The Buffalo News.

The News reported that a Batavia company with ties to one of the BMHA's assistant maintenance superintendents received almost $400,000 in payments for cleaning and repairing housing authority apartments in 2017 – just months after the business was created. BMHA paid GFY General Services & Cleaning almost twice as much as any other company doing similar work for the agency.

A majority of the work awarded to GFY was in increments of $2,000 or less. Such spending, known as micropurchases, are exempt from federal bidding rules. BMHA assistant maintenance superintendents picked which companies were given the jobs.

The article was based on The News' analysis of BMHA purchasing records. The analysis found 90 percent of $2.5 million in outside work done for the authority was based on individual purchase orders of $2,000 or less. The News found some of these micropurchases appear to violate federal laws that prohibit breaking down purchases into small increments to avoid reaching the federal bidding threshold.

In response to The Buffalo News article, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the BMHA overseer, said it is reviewing the Buffalo agency's use of micropurchases to determine if federal rules are being violated.

Firm with ties to BMHA supervisor gets $391,000 from BMHA, mostly without bidding

While all details aren't worked out yet, key to Brown's plan is hiring three superintendents of maintenance, a new position. Part of their job, Brown said, will be picking up at least some of the purchasing responsibilities now shared by eight assistant maintenance superintendents responsible for BMHA's 27 housing developments.

"What I am hoping to achieve is greater accountability and having fewer employees that are able to dole out these contracts," he said.

Here are highlights of Brown's plan:

  1.  Increase overall supervision at the housing authority by reinstating an asset manager position, which has been vacant for a few years. The asset manager will oversee housing managers and staff now assigned to BMHA facilities, as well as the newly created maintenance superintendent positions.
  2. Appoint three maintenance superintendents, whose duties will include overseeing the assistant maintenance superintendents and picking up some – and maybe all – of their purchasing and contracting responsibilities.
  3. Set up a more coordinated purchasing system that will encourage competitive bidding, and also ensure fairness for work that is not formally bid. He suggested using a type of wheel for purchases exempt from bidding to ensure fairness among contractors.
  4. Provide additional training to staff on the proper use of micropurchases.
  5. Hold a vendor fair to spread the word that the BMHA is looking for more companies to do business with, and to enable the BMHA to expand its list of available vendors.
  6. Research establishing a pilot program using BMHA employees to do some of the public housing apartment cleanup and repair work now being done by outside contractors. "We are researching different ways to have our own people do more unit turnovers," he said, referring to the process of cleaning and repairing a unit after a tenant moves out, and before new one moves in. "I'd rather have our own employees than a contractor, but it has to be cost effective," Brown said.

The financially struggling BMHA has been cutting staff over the past decade to reduce costs,  then relying on outside contractors to do some of the work housing authority workers use to do.

While there were 325 BMHA employees in 2005 taking care of the agency's 27 developments, there were 148 workers in 2017, according to payroll records.

Instead of the 60 general laborers the agency had in 2005, there are now 40.  Instead of 26 general mechanics, now there are 14.   Instead of three plumbers, now there is one staff plumber for the entire agency.

And while there were five plasterers, four painters, three carpenters and two exterminators on staff back in 2005, now there are none, according to the payroll records.

In 2017, the News found, the BMHA hired some 40 different contractors - at a cost of $2.5 million - to do everything from cut the grass and install carpets, to exterminate buildings and do whatever repairs are needed to get units ready before new tenants move in.

Brown described the results of The Buffalo News analysis of BMHA purchasing records as "disturbing." He said it appears the BMHA should have been bidding out some work that was instead sliced into smaller $2,000 projects and awarded as micropurchases exempt from bidding.

He said he was also disturbed that one company, GFY, got $391,000 in work in one year while the next largest amount any company received for doing similar work was $200,000.

GFY is owned by Brandi Clark, who has a professional and personal relationship with Jeffrey DiPalma. DiPalma's brother, Darryl DiPalma, is an assistant maintenance superintendent with the BMHA. In that role, DiPalma has the authority to help select contractors to perform work at his assigned BMHA development as long as it doesn't exceed $2,000.

This Facebook photo of Brandi Clark, owner of GFY General Services & Cleaning, and Jeffrey DiPalma, a GFY employee, shows they have a personal relationship. The photo was taken of Clark and her two children with DiPalma at Jellystone Park Camp Resort. GFY General Services received nearly $400,000 in mostly no-bid work from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, where DiPalma's brother, Darryl, helps hire companies for that work. (Facebook photo)

While the GFY case raises questions of fairness, Brown said he has no information leading him to believe GFY was hired for any reason other than it does good work, and its services are needed. Brown said he's known Darryl DiPalma to be an excellent employee.

Brown also suggested assistant maintenance superintendents such as DiPalma may not have been properly trained in micropurchasing, and also that they have a lot of responsibilities.

"They work really hard," he said. "They are at the scene of everything that goes wrong. They show up for fires. An awful lot is put on assistant superintendents. "

Creating the maintenance superintendent positions will help with the workload, while also creating more supervision, he said. Each of the three new maintenance superintendents will head a team, working with assistant maintenance superintendents.

Brown said he hasn't yet decided the extent that the new superintendents will handle purchasing duties, but is leaning to fully shifting the responsibility from assistant superintendents.

Either way, Brown said the maintenance superintendents will coordinate with each other, as well as working with their own teams.

In that way, he said, the three supervisors can combine purchases, whether for services or materials, with the intention of getting the best price and following bidding rules.

"The three teams will talk, and increase efficiency," he said.

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