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Comptroller audit should only be a start

The city comptroller's office is going to look over the books at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. in the wake of The News' investigation of the agency's role in the failed One Sunset restaurant.

Reports my colleague Brian Meyer:

The agency has millions of dollars in its loan portfolio, (Comptroller Andrew) SanFilippo said, and the public deserves assurances that there aren’t other questionable transactions.

“This potentially could be just the tip of the iceberg,” the comptroller said.

SanFilippo hastened to add that he won’t jump to conclusions until his audit division begins a review of BERC’s delinquent loans and lending criteria.

The review team, led by Chief Auditor Darryl McPherson, also will try to determine whether past loans are “really providing the business and job-creation stimulus incentives that we want,” SanFilippo said.

A review by the comptroller's office makes sense - given the scope of the office.

I have to chuckle, however, at SanFilippo's assertion that he was planning this review all along. Kind of like Mayor Byron Brown saying Tuesday that he didn't know if the supposed decision two weeks ago by BERC President Brian Reilly to review the agency was triggered by the knowledge The News was investigating the One Sunset deal.

All I can say, Mr. Comptroller, Mr. Mayor and Mr. BERC President, is why does it take a newspaper story for you to start paying attention?

While the comptroller's review can shed light, it's no substitute for the involvement of outside investigators.

Let's be honest, City Hall is an incestuous place with a 'go along to get along' culture.

Moreover, there is more that needs to be looked at than what the comptroller's office alone can provide in manpower and expertise.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a scathing review of the city's management of the the Community Development Block Grant program described sloppy record keeping - at best - that strikes me as a potential breeding ground for corruption.

BERC is  just one of the city entities that lives off block grant money, so, for starters, perhaps a review by the comptroller and others needs to follow all that money. That means not only looking at BERC, but the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, and various city departments.

Then there's the issue of personnel practices. It's no secret that hiring at both BERC and BURA  is largely of the patronage variety in which credentials are often an after-thought. Michelle Barron might be today's poster child, but she is far from the only one who got hired and/or promoted for reasons that have nothing to do with expertise in economic development.

Little wonder, then, that City Hall's economic development efforts founder.

There's also the larger issue of the multitude of agencies, starting with BERC and BURA, that have their hands in economic development. Do we really need all of them, or is consolidation and more direct accountability in order?

Perhaps it's time to look at best practices in other cities.

In short, have at it Mr. SanFilippo. But you should not be the only watchdog sinking his teeth into this mess.


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