Lawmakers in Niagara County Look to Stop Misuse of Welfare Funds

February 12, 2013 Updated Feb 12, 2013 at 7:15 PM EDT

By WKBW Internet


Lawmakers in Niagara County Look to Stop Misuse of Welfare Funds

February 12, 2013 Updated Feb 12, 2013 at 7:15 PM EDT

LOCKPORT, NY (WKBW) - Lawmakers in Niagara County decided to table a group of resolutions Monday that would take housing grants out of the hands of welfare recipients and allow the Department of Social Services to pay rent directly to landlords.

"All we're asking for is accountability of taxpayer funds and that's what this resolution is asking for. It's asking the State to change the law so that the rent money would be direct voucher, just like Section-8 leased housing," explained Dennis Virtuoso who co-sponsored the measures and serves at Democrat minority leader in the Legislature.

Three resolutions were put forth; one asking New York State to change the law that allows beneficiaries to use the money however they want. The second resolution calls for a "home rule" clause that would allow Niagara County to manage the benefits independent of the state. The third calls for criminal charges when the money is misused.

"We can be arrested if we misappropriate funds. In this case, if they're given money for rent and they don't use it for that, nothing happens to them," said Virtuoso.

All three measures were brought up during committee but failed to make it to a vote.

Despite having members of the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, who helped to craft the measure, and representatives from Social Services in attendance to discuss the resolutions; legislators immediately tabled them saying they wanted more information.

Property owners say that when DSS (Department of Social Services) tenants are allowed to use the money freely and do not spend it on rent, it has a crippling effect on neighborhoods and their pocket books.

According to statistics from Niagara Falls City Court compiled by the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara, the average cost for a property owner to evict a tenant is about $3,700.

They also say that a majority of the evictions in the city are of tenants receiving DSS benefits.

These evictions also have a ripple effect, leading to vacant houses and lower property values.

"And when there is that kind of churn that goes with being evicted on a regular basis, it affects the neighborhoods that my properties are in," said Bob Pascoal, President of the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara.

The county is also then forced to find the tenant a place to stay, which can sometimes mean placing them in a hotel room. However the cost to taxpayers is just beginning.

"Then we have to pay them food vouchers, then we have to pay to store their stuff. Then we have to pay to move them too. This is all taxpayer dollars, all for the simple reason that they didn't pay their rent," explained Virtuoso.

The topic is expected to brought up again at the next committee meeting in March. If adopted, they would still have to go through the legislative process in Albany and be signed by the Governor before any policy changes could take effect.