Niagara Gazette — A pair of Democratic officials believe politics may be helping to delay action on a series of resolutions aimed at changing the rules for individuals who receive monthly rental assistance.
Niagara County Democratic Party Chairman Nick Forster and Niagara County lawmaker Jason Zona, D-Niagara Falls, charged this week that Republicans in the county legislature who said they needed more time to study a proposed housing assistance reform package are really just stalling for political reasons.
"As a party chair, I know that there is a time and place for politics," said Forster in a written statement sent to the Niagara Gazette. "The reform of our county's welfare system to hold people accountable and help save our housing stock is not that time or place. It is time for (the) Republican Majority to stop politicking, start listening to the people and to pass this common sense reform.
Zona and Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, earlier this year introduced a package of resolutions aimed at changing the rules for those eligible for rental assistance so funds earmarked for rent are required to be used for that purpose only. The resolutions were crafted with help from members of the Landlord Association of Greater Niagara who say renters who receive shelter allowance grants each month often fail to use the money for rent, leading to an increase in costly evictions.
The measures had asked that the state change the stipulations for the program to require direct pay to landlords, require public assistance clients to sign affidavits requiring them to use their allowance payments for housing costs or grant Niagara County permission to alter its own rules for the program to ensure rent vouchers are used as intended.
The resolutions were drafted following consultation with Niagara County Social Services Department Director Anthony Restaino. The reform effort also has been supported by members of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council.
The pieces of legislation were sent to the legislature's Community Services Committee on Jan. 15. Committee members took no action on the bills during a Feb. 11 meeting. Landlord association and block club members who attended were not invited to share their input before the measures were tabled by the committee.
The proposal to table the resolutions supporting statewide direct-pay arrangements or a home rule message that would allow Niagara County to make its own rules for the handling of shelter allowance grants was actually made by another Democrat - Niagara Falls lawmaker Owen Steed. His motion at the Feb. 11 meeting was seconded by Falls Republican Cheree Copelin who agreed with Steed that more time was needed to further research the issue and discuss it with Social Services Commissioner Restaino.
Steed indicated that his decision was based on feedback from his constituents, several of whom told him they had "a problem being denied the opportunity to handle their own money."
Zona believes they had ample time to digest the merits of the reform proposals and should have acted to move the process forward. He accused Copelin and the Republican Majority for what he described as a "political delay tactic."
"The bills were introduced a month ago," Zona said. "Now the Republicans want more time to study? Time is money. Right now, taxpayer fraud continues and property values are going down. But, clearly, fixing the system is not a priority for Republican majority. Fixing these bills to take political credit definitely is."