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Ogdensburg begins work of fixing beleaguered housing program


OGDENSBURG — City officials are discussing changes to the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to prevent problems like the ones surrounding the house at 819 Knox St. from happening again.

“We made some practical changes,” said City Manager Arthur J. Sciorra. “For example, it would work better if we made some changes about how the property is put forward for purchase.”

The Knox Street property became a subject of debate after it was revealed that a family had lived in the home for three years without paying taxes or rent to the city after the city foreclosed for back taxes. The home was placed into the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and renovated using over $70,000 in grant money. Then-city planner J. Justin Woods arranged for the house to be sold to its occupants, covering the cost of sale using $51,000 in grant money, a move which violated established city policy. Mr. Sciorra has stated these problems occurred because a department head, Mr. Woods, was acting unilaterally and against his wishes.

Now Mr. Sciorra is leading an effort to revise the city’s housing policy. He presented some of these ideas for discussion at the City Council meeting Monday.

The city charter and state property law require an elected body vote to approve the sale or lease of all property. Over the past few months, property sales were being brought before the council after Mr. Sciorra had already signed a purchase agreement with the buyers.

The changes Mr. Sciorra has proposed will require the council to approve any sale before a purchase agreement is signed.

“It is so we won’t be in a situation where a council is asked to ratify a previously existing agreement,” said City Attorney Andrew W. Silver.

Mr. Sciorra also wants to make sure all Neighborhood Stabilization Program properties are sold using a lottery system to pick a buyer from a list of individuals who meet program standards for income and family size.

“I think that there is a lottery is important to the program,” said Mr. Sciorra. “It wasn’t clear on how to do the lottery. We’re trying to clarify it so those kinds of procedures that needed to be spelled out are in there.”

Though a policy adopted by the City Council requires that properties be entered into such a lottery for sale, a recent investigation conducted by Mr. Silver into the city’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program found that the lottery process was not being followed. Properties like 819 Knox St. were being sold directly to individuals.

The council wants the revised policy to focus on adding more oversight to the program.

“The biggest thing for me is that I want to see some sort of oversight and checks and balances,” said Councilman Daniel E. Skamperle.

Some city councilors want safeguards in place to make sure that home purchases cannot be totally subsidized with grant money. Mr. Skamperle was dismayed that Mr. Woods was facilitating the purchase of houses renovated in the program with state and federal funds. In the case of 819 Knox St., the entire cost of the house was covered by grant funds.

“The city manager signed a purchase agreement and then several days later the director of the program itself turns around and basically gives the house away,” he said. “I want to see a system where that can’t happen.”

Other councilors want to see the current housing program scrapped and rewritten. Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley said he doubts the value of Ogdensburg’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

“I am disappointed in the success of this program. We’ve done three houses and we still own all three of them,” he said. “Essentially, we spent $230,000 to fix up three properties, and we haven’t gotten them off our hands.”

Mr. Morley said that he would like to see administration of the program brought back into City Hall. Currently, that responsibility is handled by a DeKalb Junction firm, C. W. Augustine.

“I think there is better control for the City Council, better control for the city if we do it in house,” Mr. Morley said.

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