The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority spent at least $90,218 over 16 months to hire a public relations firm to do PR work that other upstate New York housing agencies handle in-house.

Now some BMHA board members are questioning why an authority that’s supposed to be serving the poor found it necessary to hire Eric Mower + Associates in a no-bid contract for basic communications matters that authority executives had been handling themselves up until September 2011, when they first retained the firm.

EMA was paid at least $17,336 from September until the end of 2011, according to documents obtained by The Buffalo News through the state Freedom of Information Law. .

Excluding newsletters, BMHA paid the public relations firm another $72,882 for 281 hours of work in 2012.

The authority hired EMA in a no-bid process in 2011, citing “emergency” conditions when it was dealing with the fallout after asbestos was discovered at two housing developments. The BMHA has continued the arrangement since then without getting competitive proposals from other public relations firms.

The hourly rates EMA charged the public housing agency last year ranged from $325 an hour for work done by a senior partner to $125 an hour for tasks performed by junior employees.

Based on the data provided, an average of just over 23 hours of work was done per month last year, costing taxpayers an average of $6,073 per month.

The board discussed the possibility of hiring a public relations firm to help market the positive things being done by the authority, said Michael Seaman, chairman of the BMHA board of commissioners. But the hiring of Eric Mower + Associates never came before the board for a vote.

Instead, he said, Executive Director Dawn Sanders-Garrett had the authority to hire EMA using funds designated for professional services.

“It fell under her authority as long as it stays within the dollar amount. I think the contract amount was $25,000 a year,” Seaman said.

That’s well below the $72,882 EMA was paid last year.

Seaman said the board will talk with Sanders-Garrett soon to find out why she called on EMA for simple matters.

“Why would you ask for help to respond” to routine issues? he said.

Some of the routine duties were handled by Stephen Bell, an EMA partner and director of public affairs, who gets paid $325 an hour.

For instance, Bell called a reporter in May 2012 to talk about the attendance record of one of the commissioners. And last September, he sent four news releases and media advisories about Erie County Medical Center’s mobile mammography unit visiting BMHA properties.

Bell also returned calls on behalf of BMHA officials for basic information during last year’s tenant elections. The reporter’s message was left for BMHA attorney David Rodriguez, but Bell returned the call, saying Rodriguez was busy. Bell said he called to see if it was something he could help with.

Up until last year, questions from reporters had been answered by Sanders-Garrett, Rodriguez or Modesto Candelario, assistant executive director.

That also was the process under Sanders-Garrett’s predecessor, Sharon West. After West left in April 2005 for a similar job with the City of Tampa, Fla., BMHA General Counsel Gillian Brown assumed the additional role of interim executive director and was the main contact who responded to reporters’ inquiries.

In 2003, however, BMHA retained Travers Collins & Company – another local public relations firm – for about two years, according to that agency’s principal, Bill Collins. It performed basic marketing and communications services for the authority, including writing and editing news releases, doing newsletters and handling internal communications, Collins said.

Travers Collins was selected over four other firms in a competitive review.

EMA, though, was hired under BMHA’s “emergency procurement policy when cases of public emergency arose out of unforeseen occurrences and conditions affecting ... Kensington Heights Development and Marine Drive Apartments,” according to information Rodriguez provided. He was referring to the discovery of asbestos in both cases.

However, the housing authority’s records show that EMA performed services beyond the scope of Kensington Heights and Marine Drive.

For example, Bell issued news releases like one from December 2012 regarding demolition of the former Woodson Gardens apartments on Best Street; a November 2012 news release about the authority’s annual meeting; and one in July 2012 about a local nursery donating flowers to BMHA residents.

He also issued emails announcing the 2012 tenant election process and was the contact person who fielded questions when some tenants did not receive their ballots.

Bell has said that as part of EMA’s agreement with BMHA, he cannot be quoted. Still, he speaks on behalf of the authority while issuing emailed news releases that identify Sanders-Garrett, Candelario or Rodriguez as the media contacts.

In a written response, Rodriguez said the authority needed the expertise, resources and distinctive skill sets that EMA brings. And the amount that has been paid to the public relations firm is less than one quarter of one percent of the authority’s $50 million operating budget.

When asked why the services were not bid out, officials cited the emergency provisions.

The emergencies at Kensington Heights and Marine Drive, though, occurred in 2011.

Buffalo’s largest landlord, BMHA has about 10,000 low-income, public housing residents spread through 33 public housing developments and an additional 1,372 participants in its Section 8 program.

Unlike Buffalo, other upstate housing authorities make do without hiring separate public relations companies.

For instance,there are about 2,500 low-income public housing residents at Syracuse Housing Authority and more than 3,000 Section 8 families.

Executive Director Bill Simmons and David Paccone, senior management analyst, generally are the spokesmen who handle media calls, said a staffer. The aide added that the Syracuse agency does not have the money to hire a public relations firm.

The Rochester Housing Authority has 4,400 low-income, public housing tenants and an additional 8,000 on Section 8 vouchers. An aide there said Executive Director Alex Castro is the authority’s spokesman and handles media matters.

Niagara Falls Housing Authority has about 800 apartments and 1,500 low-income, public housing residents but it does not administer a Section 8 program.

Staff and employees there handle public relations responsibilities, but the work was becoming “a little cumbersome,” said Executive Director Stephanie Cowart.

She recently put out a request for proposals for a person or firm to help with the agency’s website, annual report, internal and external communications and news releases on a short-term basis. Cowart has a “very small” operating budget and will have to find the money to pay about $3,000 a month for the outside services for about a year.

“Then we can go back to doing things ourselves. I don’t want to spend the money if we don’t have to,” she said.