Leader Blues

Monday, September 25, 2006

TOP STORY>>Housing agency aims to improve

IN SHORT: New board members name Durham their chairman as they seek to fill job of departing executive director, who resigned.

Leader staff writer

The newly appointed Jacksonville Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is seeking a new executive director who will improve the lives of low-income people and take the time to apply for federal grants that will pay for such necessities as air-conditioning for tenants who usually have to buy their own units.

A recent federal audit found previous management did not file necessary paperwork to obtain funding or keep up with technological advances in record keeping. The board also wants to change the authority’s hiring practices. In the past, for example, the authority hired a security officer with little to do besides background checks of housing applicants, although the officer told the board he has done more when he was asked.

During its first meeting Thursday, the new JHA Board approved placing advertising for a new executive director. The commissioners also requested that applicants go through Jacksonville’s Human Resources Department.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, who was present at the meeting, accepted the board’s request for assistance in seeking a new executive director for the beleaguered JHA.

“You need someone to think outside of the box,” said Mary Boyd, interim executive director of the JHA since July who quit the temporary position during the board meeting.

This summer, Virginia Simmons resigned as executive director for about 14 years. Simmons was paid $53,000 annually, Boyd told Marilyn Canon, Mike Wilkinson, Jon Johnson and Jim Durham, all of the new JHA Board commissioners.

At the first meeting for newly appointed members of the JHA board, it was disclosed that tenants were expected to pay for their own window air-conditioners in the past. The JHA board had previously purchased four window air-conditioning units because the commissioners felt sorry for the people who did not have any, Boyd revealed.

Changes are already taking place at the authority. Under Boyd’s instructions, a bid procedure to install air-conditioning units throughout the Max Howell Apartments is underway.

According to Boyd, who is also the executive director for the Conway Federal Housing facility, the operating subsidy at JHA is $106,000, while CHA has $212,000 to operate with. More money means more improvement projects, she said.

“To me, the greatest failure is not going after the many grants out there,” Durham, the board’s new chairman, said about the findings of HUD review. Tens of thousands of dollars may have gone by the wayside due to this failure.

Durham wants the JHA to go after grant money to fund rehabilitation projects of houses in Jacksonville so some of the tenants can become homeowners in the future. At the beginning of the meeting, Boyd also told the new JHA board, “This is my last day.”

But she will be only a phone call away if needed because board members chose to allow her to keep a cell phone until a new executive director could be selected.

Through a Freedom of Information request, The Leader obtained the initial findings of the HUD review of the JHA, which oversees the Max Howell Place apartment complex and disbursement of rent vouchers.

The review revealed Simmons admitted to fraud in letting contracts.

In mid-June, the federal agency asked for records of contracts and work orders for more than $132,000 spent by the housing authority. HUD officials wanted to scrutinize all contracts and purchase orders. They also requested those documents to be pulled and made available for June 28. On June 27, a JHA employee informed HUD that Simmons had directed her to create four contracts and to call contractors to come to the office and sign the contracts.

On the same day, Simmons “admitted to Mr. Jesse Westover, Public Housing director, Little Rock Field Office, that she had falsely reported program obligation under the FY 2003 Capital Fund Program on Sept. 15, 2005 in the amount of $132,788.11,” according to the HUD review, which found that no application had been made for the grant, making the authority ineligible for the grant.

HUD officials concluded that these actions were taken in an attempt on the part of the then JHA executive director to document evidence to support contracts had legitimately been entered into before the obligation deadline of Sept. 16, 2005.

The review also alleges that the housing authority “did not properly advertise for bids in the excess of $25,000” or adequately keep documentation of solicitations. Swaim previously indicated there could be ramifications stemming from bid letting.

The new board briefly discussed one of the duplexes at the Max Howell Place rental complex. Durham brought up possible plans to demolish one of the duplex units, which has been vacant for about two years after it was a site of a meth lab bust. Demolition is necessary since it is uninhabitable.

From this site, a new building would be constructed in hopes of attracting a police officer to live in one side while seeking grants for a possible computer lab for youth living at the Max Howell complex.

Commissioners like the idea of making changes at the complex.

Canon brought up the security officer issue cited in the HUD review, which pointed out that a security officer was allegedly “seldom seen” on the premises. The security officer is paid a salary whether or not he reviews background reports of new tenants or does anything else, the document revealed.

The security officer was not providing a weekly report of services he supposedly performed, and the review team noted seeing “several messages between three to 10 days old” left for him by applicants. Employees also reported that the security officer was only seen in the office when he signed his time sheets and picked up his paycheck.

In a letter dated Sept. 19, Jim Potter said he was the security officer mentioned in the HUD review. He said Simmons contacted him in either 1997 or 1998 after she was unsuccessful in hiring a Jacksonville police officer to assist with housing-related problems and background checks of potential tenants.

Potter’s letter states, “I’ve been called to the Housing Authority in the middle of the night to fires and assisted with many problem tenants who were moved over.

In 1998, a severe ice storm struck Pulaski County and left many elderly and other tenants without other means, stranded to ride out the storm and devastation left afterward.

“I was called and told of the stranded tenants and arranged for the Red Cross to open a shelter in Jacksonville and in North Little Rock for Jacksonville tenants. I also arranged for Central Arkansas Transit to come to the site and pick up the many tenants and their belongings for transport to the shelters. I’ve played catch with kids and played chase and ‘cops and robbers’ with felons and drug dealers in Max Howell Place in my years at Jacksonville Housing Authority.”

Potter, who was paid $11,308 for part-time work last year, explained that he was unaware of the agency’s problems, but he read the articles in The Leader about the HUD review.

“They are absolutely true,” the letter reads.

The letter went on, “Up until the HUD review that began recently, I was specifically told by the executive director that my duties did not include the patrolling of the site….In short, my duties were to conduct background checks.”

Potter alleges that since the HUD review, Simmons “amended” his duties to include the “regular patrol of the site” and submitting bi-weekly reports.

Before Durham was named board chairman, he said Fred West, who was the last remaining member as well as chairman of the old JHA board, had said he would resign due to health issues.

Coinciding with a HUD review getting underway, three members — Ferrell Gray, Robert Colford and Robert Whatley — of the old JHA board followed in Simmons’ footsteps by resigning. A fourth member, Johnny Moory, had previously resigned due to an illness in his family. Moory’s resignation came before the review was initiated.