Rent kept low at county-owned homes?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The new administration in Erie County is led by the county's former comptroller, who was critical of the former administration's penchant for perks. But now that Mark Poloncarz is in charge, does that means that all the perks being given out under the old administration have ended?

When an Erie County-owned house at Wendt Beach Park was about to be leased to then Commissioner of Environment and Planning, Kathy Konst, for $650 a month, some accused former Erie County Executive Chris Collins of short-changing the taxpayers.

In October 2012, Erie County Legislator Thomas Loughran stated, "$650 a month? You could get $650 a week, easily."

The Collins administration made no apologies, pointing out that the homes inside the county parks used to be occupied almost rent-free.

Former Erie County Parks Commissioner Jim Hornung said, "I didn't care who the tenant was. It made no difference to me if it was the President of the United States or just a resident, because they were just there to pay the rent and pay the utilities, which had not been done in the past."

But Konst did not move into the house and an audit by then Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz produced a scathing report, indicating some properties were being rented to political appointees and county parks employees without public awareness, that houses had been renovated at taxpayer expense without the knowledge of the County Legislature, and that there were no written lease agreements or security deposits in place.

Poloncarz was clearly critical. But now, more than two years later, Mark Poloncarz is the County Executive and a new Parks Commissioner has been appointed. So who is renting the houses now?

A house at Ellicott Creek is still occupied by the secretary of the former parks commissioner. Jared Jackson is paying $550 a month plus utilities. True market value for a rental home like this is somewhere between $850 to $1,200 a month, according to veteran real estate agent with whom we consulted.

"Mr. Jackson was brought in there, I guess it would be the best way to say, because of the landlord-tenant relationship by the prior administration. It wasn't my administration. It's not even connected with me. I've never even met the guy," Poloncarz said.

The house at Akron Falls is now occupied by Parks Crew Chief Jimmy Depczynski. He is also paying $550 a month plus utilities. Fair market value per month here, is estimated again, between $850 and $1,200.

The park house at Hunter's Creek in Wales is being rented out to Parks Crew Chief Dan Lewalski for $429.50 a month. And he doesn't pay for heat.

Erie County Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel said, "That's what was provided to that crew chief years ago and that's til now what he's been paying. I have not changed any of the rentals yet until I can assess it in the right way."

Schinzel believes parks employees are the best tenants for these homes because they are the caretakers of the grounds, available 24/7 for any emergency and meeting needs as they arise. But are taxpayers still getting short-changed on the rental fees?

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said, "My concern is that Erie County is not charging enough for the true value of these homes."

Schinzel says he is in the process of re-evaluating the conditions of all the parks homes. The Poloncarz administration says it will then adjust the rent accordingly.

"I know the Tax Director's got just one more home to take a look at, and then we're going to review the rents," Poloncarz said.

And Schinzel says some of the old parks homes that may not be worth fixing up, like one in Como Park. He has also spelled out for the first time conditions and responsibilities for all tenants who live in these homes. Up until now, nothing was in writing.

With the county looking at an $8 million hole in the budget, the County Comptroller suggests possibly putting these park homes up for bid to the people willing to pay the highest rent.

"That seems to be where Erie County could get the most bang for its buck. Let the free market determine what exactly people are willing to pay. Maybe people are willing to pay twice as much as they're paying now. Every single penny counts in this budget," Mychajliw said.

Of all the parks home, only six are currently livable. Some were left to rot after the red-green budget.

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