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A poverty of principles at City Hall

In the grand scheme of things, a $9,099 health insurance policy isn't a huge deal.

Then again, neither is $30,000 for BlackBerrys.

Not when you're talking about an annual budget of more than $5 million, which is the operating budget of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

But when that budget is supposed to be targeted to combat poverty and promote economic development in the nation's third-poorest city, well, $30,000 here and $9,099 there speak volumes.

And what it says is that bureaucrats get first dibs on money earmarked to deal with poverty.

You poor folks, well, step to the back of the bus.

It's all on display, has been for years.

For three decades, the city has been squandering its block grant funding. HUD finding after HUD finding has concluded the city is spending too much on city salaries and risky loans.

The investigation Pat Lakamp and I did in May found that Brian Davis shifted $30,000 in block grant away from his Ellicott District to help fund One Sunset, just a couple of doors down from Hutch's, about the swankiest restaurant on Gates Circle.

And now, as I report in today's News, BERC expanded its health insurance options last December in ways that enabled BERC President Brian Reilly to opt out of his single plan that cost the city $3,730 in favor of brand-spanking new policy that is costing the agency $9,099.

Hey, it's only money.

Poor people's money, at that.

Common Council President David Franczyk raises a good question: Why did the BERC bureaucracy, headed by Reilly, make the decision to expand coverage knowing that the guy in charge stood to benefit. Shouldn't that have fallen to BERC's governing board?

"For his own protection, you think he'd want to bring it to the board," Franczyk said.

It makes sense, doesn't it, that if you stand to benefit from a decision, you either recuse yourself or give your superiors a say - or at least a heads up. Reilly didn't do that. Instead, he signed the contract with the health insurance company, then got his girlfriend coverage.

It's all so City Hall.

As I've nosed around the agency the past several months I've learned that the bureaucracy often keeps the board in the dark. The decision to alter health insurance options in a way that benefits the guy is par for the culture. Been going on well before Reilly got there.

Moreover, I've learned that Reilly likes to play things close to the vest. Suffice to say, he's tough to reach on the phone.Take yesterday, for example.

I placed numerous calls and e-mails to his office, explaining that I needed to talk to him about his health insurance. Did likewise with his attorney.

What I got back, to quote Simon and Garfunkel, was the sound of silence.

City Finance Commissioner Janet Penska, to her credit, finally got the lawyer to come down to her office late in the day to answer some questions.

Reilly, I'm still waiting to hear from. Usually, Peter Cutler, the mayor's press secretary, can get him to return a call, even if it's days or even weeks later. Not yesterday.

Better to sulk than speak, I guess.

OK, so he blows off reporters. Not that big of a deal, really. I mean, his boss, the mayor, does it all the time.

But I'm far from the only one to get the silent treatment from Reilly, and some of the people he's given the cold shoulder to have come bearing a precious commodity - investment in the city.

In the past couple of months I've fielded phone calls from a prominent developer, a state official and someone heading up a non-profit, all of whom were all looking to invest money in the city. I'm not talking chump change - among the three of them, they were involved in projects with the potential to bring upwards of $100 million into the city. All three are credible people involved with credible organizations. Very.

All three had the same experience. They called Reilly and he failed to return their phone calls.

Several tried him more than once. One guy eventually got through, only to be snarled at. The other finally called me asking who else he could call in City Hall. The third fellow finally got through, only to feel he got stiffed in the end.

Such is the state of economic development efforts in the city. That, and One Sunset.

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