Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

TOP STORY >>Agency flunks review

Leader staff writer

Following a less-than-flattering federal review of its management practices, Jacksonville Housing Authority’s score of 21 out of a 30 possible score has dropped down to 14. “That brings them down to a substandard component in management operations,” said Patricia Campbell, spokesperson for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

Based on the recent HUD review, the current score reflects the management operations scoring process for fiscal year 2005, according to Campbell. There are four components—management, physical, financial and resident service—in the Public Housing Authority Scoring process. A maximum score for the management, physical and financial is 30, according to HUD’s website. Resident service/satisfaction scoring tops out at 10. JHA oversees the day-to-day operation of the Max Howell Place apartment complex and disbursements of rent vouchers to low-income families and individuals. This summer, JHA saw a mass exodus of its officials while under scrutiny by a federal review team.

JHA executive director Virginia Simmons resigned from her post after 14 years. A HUD report alleges she admitted to fraud.
In mid-June, the federal agency asked for contracts and work orders for more than $132,000 spent by the housing authority.
HUD officials wanted to scrutinize all contracts and purchase orders and asked that they 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 at the 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 document.

HUD officials concluded these actions were taken by the JHA executive director in an attempt to document evidence to support contracts had been legitimately entered into before the obligation deadline of Sept. 16, 2005, which, in fact, did not happen. That made the authority ineligble for the grant.

Jimmy Durham, newly ap-pointed chairman of the JHA board, says he wants an aggressive director, citing the “greatest failure” is not going after the numerous grants available to the local public housing authority. The HUD review team also pointed out possible flaws ranging from personnel policy not being followed in a disciplinary action to a security officer allegedly seldom seen on the premises.

The security officer is paid a salary, according to the document, “whether he reviews background reports or not.”
After intervening to pull JHA out of its slump, HUD officials want to see improvements right away. “They’re (HUD) in the process of negotiating with the housing authority for a memorandum of agreement,” HUD spokesperson Campbell told The Leader.

Although not accused of any wrongdoing, board members Ferrell Gray, Robert Colford and Robert Whatley stepped down after Simmons left, leaving only Fred West, its chairman, who soon quit as well. Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim stepped in by assisting the city council in appointing new commissioners — Durham, Mike Wilkinson, Marilyn Canon and Jon Johnson — to the JHA board.

A fifth board member must still be selected, but for now, these four new commissioners face the challenge of revamping the JHA’s management operations. At the first meeting of a newly appointed JHA board , Mary Boyd, interim director for the beleaguered public housing authority who quit at the meeting, said that HUD officials—Johnny Wooley, Sandra King and Corey Grant—would now be involved in the agency’s operation.

“Those are the three actually working to get it back up to snuff,” Boyd told commissioners. At the same meeting, improving JHA led to discussions about more resident involvement, updating the computer system, HUD training for the new commissioners and selecting an executive director who will seek out available grant funding.

Management operations include the handling of a public housing authority’s capital funds, vacant unit turnaround, work orders, annual inspections of units and systems, and security. The authority’s goal is “to assist in delivery of services at the public housing level while promoting trust in the public housing system among public housing agencies, public housing residents, HUD and the general public by providing a tool for effectively and fairly measuring the performance of each public housing authority,” the website reads.

The authority not only hands out rewards for high performances but also has penalties for poor performers.