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JULY 22 - JULY 30, 2014

City, Housing Authority Relationship Questioned by Community Activist

By Mike Hudson

July 22, 2014

When everyone else has to comply with the new Dyster disposal ordinance, starting August 4, why do tenants of the Housing Authority not have to comply?
Carping critics told the Reporter that people there are unable, since, as they don't have the life skills to pay their own rent, how can they be expected to recycle like regular people? Housing Authority Director Stephanie Cowart disputes this vehemently. She said tenants will recycle and there is a rational plan in place. She stopped short of calling the city’s harsh, new garbage plan “irrational.”

Niagara Falls community activist, blogger and Niagara Gazette columnist Ken Hamilton is up in arms over the fact that the Niagara Falls Housing Authority has been exempted from compliance with the city’s tough new recycling program at the same time the Authority faces an inquiry into exactly what happened to $1.5 million in federal funding earmarked for the HOPE VI housing project.

“How do you tell every landlord in the city that they are responsible for whether or not their tenants comply with the recycling regulations and then exempt the Niagara Falls Housing Authority?” Hamilton told the Niagara Falls Reporter.

Housing Authority Director Stephanie Cowart fired back, asking why he would attack her agency without talking to her about it first.

“I’m not going to get into it with Kenny Hamilton on the pages of the Niagara Falls Reporter,” she said. “But the reason we’re not held to the same standard as private landlords is that we’re not private landlords, we’re a municipal housing authority.”

Stephanie Cowart
Ken Hamilton

Cowart said that the agency will be complying with the recycling program eventually.

“It’s not that we don’t have to participate in the recycling program, it’s that we’re phasing it in,” she said. “We have our own program in place to educate our residents, and we look forward to participating in the city plan.”

Hamilton said that he believes that Niagara Falls City Councilman Charles Walker is “the author” of the exemption.

The city’s new contract with Modern Inc. of Lewiston, negotiated by City Administrator Donna Owens on behalf of Mayor Paul Dyster and signed off on by a City Council that seemed to be looking the other way, has sunk to the level of a fiasco, managing to draw criticism from small businesses, residents and even staunch Dyster supporters alike.

Originally touted as a cost saving plan, numerous problems that have had to be addressed since the plan was first approved – such as the disposal of grass clippings during the summer months – have wiped away whatever savings may have first been envisioned, and now garbage pickup will cost the city more than ever before.

Critics have called for Owens’ resignation, and Dyster’s hopes for a possible third term next year may now be in jeopardy. But the city is pressing forward with implementation of the flawed plan despite the firestorm, and City Hall sources say it is hoped that any problems can be resolved when they come up  (Editor’s Note:  The council has delayed a vote on the new ordinance).

“The whole garbage fiasco might be the straw that breaks the back of the (Mayor) Paul Dyster administration, but this particular exemption may be the straw that breaks the back of Charles Walker’s career,” Hamilton fumed.

The fact that Walker works for Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center as an outreach specialist for community medicine, and that Housing Authority Director Stephanie Cowart sits on the hospital’s Board of Directors represents a simple conflict of interest, Hamilton maintains.

“I myself don’t feel that any elected official should also be a government employee, even if it’s not the same branch of government,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Housing Authority is reeling from revelations last week that the Inspector General’s Office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has recommended that the local agency repay $1.5 million in expenditures for the HOPE VI project, stating that authority officials drew more funds from a line of credit offered by the federal agency than were needed to cover project expenditures, according to the report.

Cowart issued a statement disputing the federal findings. She maintains that the $1.5 million discrepancy was largely the result of differences in the systems of bookkeeping used by the federal and local agencies.

"The Niagara Falls Housing Authority followed all HUD requirements to the letter of the law," she said. "Essentially, the NFHA has always acted appropriately and within the guidelines of the program and in concert with the HUD field office, which closely supervised all activities."

The Inspector General’s office did not allege that any criminal wrongdoing might have been associated with the $1.5 million, recommending only that the money be paid back.

The Housing Authority’s massive HOPE VI project ended up providing 282 units of luxury housing to people who could not otherwise afford to pay the rent. Each of the units cost around $200,000 to build, far above what an average home sells for in the depressed Niagara Falls real estate market.

Numerous snags plagued the project during its construction, such as the fact that no one thought to provide for street lighting, which had to be installed after the project had been completed and was paid for by the city on the recommendation of Walker.

There was also a mold problem that resulted when construction was halted so that a former city waste dump the project was built on had to be remediated, again at city expense, and again with Walker’s support.

Walker, who previously worked as a graveyard shift machinist prior to assuming his management position at the hospital, has been a staunch supporter of the project from the start, and no one in city government questioned the need to spend millions on a project to create new housing in Niagara Falls, where the vacancy rate for private rental property has been above 30 percent for a decade.

More recently, developers looked at South Junior High School for a potential conversion to subsidized housing and it is believed that a proposal to turn the soon to close Niagara Falls YMCA into a public housing development will be presented to the City Council by the end of the summer.

Multiple calls to Charles Walker by the Niagara Falls Reporter were not answered or returned. 





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