CUOMO IN BOND-AGE

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Now that he is wearing his gubernatorial ambitions on his sleeve, the GOP has really started baying for the blood of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo may soon see the dismantling of one of his pet creations–the Community Builders program. Come October, Republican Senator Christopher Bond, his longtime nemesis, may try to axe the program altogether as part of budget negotiations. Bond, who chairs the subcommittee that controls HUD money, has been toying with the idea for a couple of years.

In 1998, Cuomo hired some 400 “fellows” from various walks of life for two-year Community Builder fellowships. The program, something like an urban Peace Corps, would deploy community developers across the country to help locals make use of HUD programs.

But last year, the Inspector General’s office issued a blistering audit, accusing Cuomo of launching the program as nothing more than a public relations ploy to get his name registered on the national consciousness. The IG demanded that the fellowships be scrapped, citing exorbitant costs. “The salaries alone exceeded $80 million,” said Michael Beard, the IG officer who conducted the audit.

By Bond’s edict, the fellows were supposed to be eliminated within the year following the IG report. Cuomo concurred, and the fellowships were eliminated September 1. But the HUD boss found a ingenious way to hold on to most of his people: He hired more than half of his former fellows as permanent Community Builders and gave them civil service status.

Essentially, said Irene Facha, regional vice president for the HUD Council of Local 222, “He gave the finger to Bond.” Cuomo also angered the union with his move: Facha says HUD management acted illegally by favoring its former fellows for the new civil service positions. Their high salaries had drained funding from other HUD programs, causing serious morale problems, she said.

As it stands now, the Community Builders project is but a pawn in a game of one-upmanship between two powerful politicians. But housing advocates say not all Community Builders are simply overpriced political hacks. “They are a bunch of talented people,” said Aaron Gornstein, head of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association, a low-income housing group in Boston.

Sandi Abadinski, a HUD spokeswoman, dismissed critics of the Community Builders: “The program has received accolades from officials nationwide, and is vital to HUD’s ability to advance its mission.”