LOCKPORT – The story of a Niagara Falls landlord who received substantial welfare funding despite owing almost $2 million in unpaid taxes and fees had Niagara County legislators blaming each other Monday.

Legislator Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, said he will introduce a measure to change the county’s policy to require landlords to show they are current on their taxes and fees before the county sends them “shelter allowances” for their welfare tenants.

“People should not be paid if they’re not paying their taxes. It’s plain and simple,” Bradt said.

He said he was trying to fix the “Virtuoso-Zona rent program.” That was a reference to two Niagara Falls Democrats who sponsored the direct landlord payments measure in 2013: Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso and Legislator Jason A. Zona.

They responded that problems with landlords such as Ralph Pescrillo could have been avoided if the Republican majority in the Legislature had gone along with a Democratic proposal to require building code inspections of all lodging intended for welfare clients, with the payments made only if the house or apartment passed inspection. “It definitely would have weeded out a lot of bad landlords,” Virtuoso said.

And county Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino questioned the legality of Bradt’s amendment, saying there’s nothing in state law that allows the county to make its direct landlord payments conditional on tax compliance. Asked if there’s any provision that strictly forbids such a rule, Restaino said, “That’s the question they’re going to have to look into.”

The Buffalo News reported last week that Pescrillo, who owes property taxes, income taxes and water bills totaling nearly $1.8 million, owns 73 properties in Niagara Falls that the city is foreclosing upon. But in 2013, he received $313,000 in rent-related welfare payments on behalf of his tenants.

In April 2013, the County Legislature passed a measure to allow direct payments of the shelter allowance to landlords, after landlords complained that welfare recipients often were stiffing them by spending the money on something other than rent. Restaino said the monthly stipend begins at $174 for a single client and rises depending on family size.

At the meeting where the measure was passed with one dissenting vote, the lawmakers spent most of their time debating whether to add a ban on payments to legislators and county officials who also are landlords. That was aimed at Virtuoso, who owns numerous properties in the Falls, although he said Monday none of them are rented to welfare recipients.

Bradt said the intent of the policy “was to make sure that tenants didn’t keep rent subsidies they were supposed to pay their landlords. The problem is, there is no measure in there requiring that the landlords pay their property taxes, pay their water bills, and maintain their properties.”

In December 2013, another Virtuoso-Zona resolution to require building inspections before paying the landlords was killed in committee. Restaino said then that the state wouldn’t have allowed it except for landlords who signed a security agreement with the county.

Zona said Monday, “Once again, Randy Bradt is proving he’s nothing more than a yes-man for the GOP. He also shows he has no clue about the issues or the law. When he states the direct pay is the problem with Ralph Pescrillo, he should take aim at his bosses in the majority who killed the Virtuoso-Zona resolution to inspect these units prior to receiving DSS (Department of Social Services) dollars. If they had supported that instead of playing politics as usual, those units would have been pulled from receiving DSS dollars two years ago. Like most problems in Niagara County, the decisions by this reckless majority cause or exacerbate them. All Bradt has done, again, is proven he’s ill-equipped for his position.”

Niagara Falls Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo said in an email to The News, “We have an opportunity to actually make a positive change with the properties in question. It would be unfortunate if members of the majority focus on politics rather than reform.”

He said the county knows who owes back taxes. “DSS has direct oversight over where recipients are placed. They are familiar with owners. That is why we advocated for the inspection component. If a housing quality standards inspector inspected a unit before rent was delivered or if back taxes were investigated, none of this would be surprising,” Piccirillo said.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com