Dyster, Piccirillo Misspent Federal Funds On Isaiah 61; Still Call Program A Success

by Mike Hudson

Results of an audit released this week by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development were sharply critical of the city’s much vaunted and insanely expensive relationship with the Isaiah 61 organization, backing up much of the Niagara Falls Reporter’s coverage of the situation during the past three years.

The audit, prepared by the office of HUD Inspector General David A. Montoya, is completely at odds with the rosy picture painted by city Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo.

It found that a lack of monitoring and oversight on the part of the city led to the spending of $61,000 in federal money earmarked for building materials on salaries of Isaiah 61 instructors instead.

Just last week, Niagara Falls residents couldn’t make up their minds as to whether they were watching the 6 o’clock news or some new comedy program when a local television station ran a segment featuring the Isaiah 61 organization as explained by Piccirillo.

Isaiah 61 is a not-for-profit, faith-based community organization. Its stated mission is to give inner-city youth marketable job skills by having them participate in rehabilitation projects focused on condemned houses — of which there are many in Niagara Falls.

Piccirillo told the interviewer that the organization had “saved the city of Niagara Falls over 40 thousand dollars in demolition costs.”

And jaws dropped from Whirlpool Street to Military Road.

Seth Piccirillo, director of Community Development for the City of Niagara Falls, is the defacto head of the not for profit, Isaiah 61.

Seth Piccirillo, director of Community Development for the City of Niagara Falls, is the defacto head of the not for profit, Isaiah 61.

That’s because Isaiah 61 has received more than $1 million in local and state aid since it was founded in 2012. In the four years since, it has completed rehab work on exactly one house. Another house collapsed after Isaiah 61 students removed load bearing walls from the interior of the structure and a third house is currently being worked on.

Demolitions average around $20,000 in the city, which is how Piccirillo arrived at the $40,000 figure.

Work has yet to begin on the old fire hall at 3721 Highland Ave., which was handed over to Isaiah 61 – along with a half a million dollars in casino cash – to rehab back in September of 2014. Other than putting up plywood over the building’s smashed-out windows, no progress whatsoever has been made on the project.

But rather than focus on the two houses that it’s taken nearly four years to rehabilitate, Piccirillo turned his attention to the job skills learned by the program’s participants.

According to Piccirillo, 146 students have enrolled in the program, and more than half of them have found employment after as a result.

“It literally helped 100 people get a job in a city with an unemployment rate higher than the county and state average,” he told the television reporter.

The number was completely fabricated, the federal audit showed.

The federal audit found that the graduation rate from the Isaiah 61 program was a dismal 58 percent, and that just 54 percent of those actually found a job. The audit report concluded there was no “documentation showing that City officials” monitored the program’s performance data.

The reality outside of Piccirillo’s brain is that 85 students graduated the program and just 46 of them managed to find work.

Niagara Falls City Council Chairman Andy Touma said he was outraged that he had to find out about the audit on his own, and that the administration’s lack of transparency on this and other matters is a growing concern.

“I did some of the research to find out about this audit,” Touma said. “That was bothersome, the fact that it wasn’t bought to our attention. We shouldn’t have to find the information on our own. It should be shared with us immediately.”

Piccirillo characterized the entire episode as some sort of bookkeeping mixup.

“Our policy beforehand was we can make contract amendments without going back to the funding agency. What they’re saying is, if you’re going to make a contract amendment, you need to notify us,” he said. “That makes complete sense. It wasn’t our policy beforehand. It is our policy now.”

New Isaiah 61 Executive Director Kevin Wing has been running the program for the past year, taking over for the group’s founder and executive director James Haid, who quit the organization in 2014 and moved to Utica for a position as director of the Utica Gospel Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter.

Also in 2014, city code enforcement officers condemned Isaiah 61’s Hyde Park Blvd. headquarters, store and school for numerous code violations. City inspectors found that Isaiah 61 had electrical service provided to them by using household extension cords plugged into a building next door.

But Piccirillo thinks of Isaiah 61 as a success story. After all, it only cost taxpayers more than $1 million to save $40,000.

This newspaper has been covering the twisted relationship between the administration of Niagara falls Mayor Paul Dyster and the Isaiah 61 cult since it began in 2012. We will continue to do so.

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