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Editorial: A culture of indifference at BMHA

It doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given other instances of questionable spending by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. While another recently uncovered instance appeared to be based on nepotism and evasions of standard bidding practices, the most recent report seems to be based in good part on laziness.

The problem, at a minimum, is that leaders of the BMHA haven’t worried much about how they spend limited amounts of money. Through some combination of inattention and what looks like deliberate manipulation, the authority has overspent on services it requires and materials it buys. How surprising can it be that many of its residents live in squalor?

The most recent revelation, reported this week in The News, is that the authority has overpaid for many routine items such as rock salt, floor tile, faucets, garbage totes, light covers and even toilet bolt kits. The reason appears to be disorganization: The authority doesn’t buy in bulk and doesn’t solicit bids for many regularly required supplies used for plumbing, electrical and janitorial purposes.

These are practices that are bound to increase costs unnecessarily and point to a culture of carelessness and poor management. It’s possible that those problems will improve under the BMHA’s new management, but they never should have been allowed to get that bad in the first place.

In fact, it has been much worse. As a previous News story documented, the authority was also overspending by evading rules on bidding which, when done properly, can reduce public costs by discouraging unnecessary work, padded expenses and improper favoritism.

While the authority’s administrators are required to seek bids for contracts worth more than $2,000, jobs worth more than that maximum were split, thereby evading the rules and, at least in some cases, allowing managers to direct the work to contractors with personal connections to authority officials.

For example, one company received an order to clean and paint an apartment as $1,950 – just $50 less than the bidding threshold. Simultaneously, though, the same company received a $650 order to remove trash from the same apartment.

What is more, the company to which the work was directed is owned by a woman who has a close personal relationship with a man whose brother is a BMHA assistant maintenance superintendent with the power to help pick contractors for some jobs that don’t exceed $2,000.

The company, GFY General Services & Cleaning, secured nearly $400,000 in work from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority in 2017, only months after its founding, and most of the jobs came without bidding, according to a review of BMHA records. Indeed, the review showed that 90 percent of the $2.5 million spent on cleaning and repairs last year was in increments of $2,000 or less.

It’s hard to see that kind of practice as anything but purposeful, and it betrays an indifference to maximizing value. The question is whether the indifference that afflicts the authority’s other spending is similarly purposeful or just careless.

Regardless, it’s fair to wonder if a pervasive apathy about managing expenses has produced a culture in which bidding practices could be ignored on the apparently plausible theory that no one really cared.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating the BMHA but taxpayers should welcome additional oversight, by the Buffalo Common Council, city Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder and the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. All should train their sights on the authority.

New management may make a difference at the BMHA, but a public accounting of the problems will go a long way toward ensuring that any improvements are permanent.

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