CARS HOMES JOBS

Troubling response to housing authority audit

Saturday, November 24, 2012
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The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority has a new chairman in Eric Weller, who replaced Dennis Brunelle in May, but the same lousy attitude: We did nothing wrong, it goes, and anyone who says we did, whether private citizen, public official or press, either doesn’t have all the facts or has it in for us.

That was the attitude when the authority was criticized for its excessively slow reaction to a bedbug infestation last fall and winter, excessively high salary of Executive Director Ed Spychalski, questionable travel by Spychalski and other officials, and nepotism. And that’s the attitude now, exhibited in Weller’s response to an audit by the state comptroller done at the request of Mayor Scott Johnson.

The comptroller’s report looked at each of the areas above and found problems with all of them. Concerning the bedbugs, the auditors pointed out that it took the authority six months to call in exterminators, during which time the infestation became worse, and reached the obvious conclusion that they should have been called in earlier. Weller insisted that the authority had handled the situation correctly, and questioned the auditors’ competence to deal with matters of pest control.

Regarding Spychalski’s salary ($152,000 in 2011 and $145,000 in 2012), the auditors found that it puts him in the top 7 percent of housing authority directors nationwide, and far exceeds the salary for directors of smaller authorities like Saratoga’s. They also found that it violates the authority’s own policy, which is supposed to peg the executive director’s salary to that of a local school principal (Spychalski’s is significantly higher). And they pointed out the financial exposure the authority subjected itself (or, more precisely, taxpayers) to by making Spychalski’s contract for five years and having it reset at five every year he was given a positive review. That provision could have forced the board, if it wanted to get rid of Spychalski, to buy out as much as four years of his contract, at a cost of somewhere between $550,000 and $600,000. Weller defended both the salary and contract.

On the subject of nepotism, the audit was mixed. It found that the hiring of Spychalski’s daughter and son was OK, because it was done through the civil service process. But using Spychalski’s brother’s garage to repair authority vehicles was a problem — even though the practice had started before Spychalski became executive director and the prices charged were reasonable — because it violated the authority’s ethics policy.

But most damning, for both the authority and Spychalski, were trips that he, the former board chairman and a staff clerk took to Washington and Phoenix for conferences. In the first case, the auditors found that the travelers arrived three days before the conference and were on a tour of the Capitol Building when they were supposedly attending special pre-conference class sessions. Did anyone say “junket”? Spychalski told the auditors that they went early to meet with their representatives in Congress, but the auditors pointed out that the meeting organizers had scheduled time for such meetings during the conference. And Gazette reporter David Lombardo took the additional step of calling the offices of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Chris Gibson, whose staff said they had never been contacted by the travelers.

In the Phoenix case, Spychalski and company flew into and out of Las Vegas, spending extra days and incurring expenses there, while renting a car for the drive to Phoenix. Spychalski told the auditors it was because he couldn’t get a direct flight from Albany to Phoenix, but the auditors found that he actually had purchased a ticket directly to Phoenix and cancelled it in favor of one to Vegas.

The auditors attributed the problem to lax financial standards on the part of the board, which didn’t require adequate documentation for travel or adequately review payments to vendors before or after they were paid. But there also seems to be the small matter of dishonesty on Spychalski’s part.

The board needs to keep a closer watch over travel vouchers (Weller said they will do so, while also giving the comptroller’s office a lecture on the importance of going to conferences) and all things financial (Weller said that reviewing and paying vendors’ bills is the job of the executive director and chief financial officer, and warned against “micromanagement” by the board.)

The board has some problems to fix. A good first step would be to acknowledge them, something that Weller still is unwilling to do — which makes him a problem.

 
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