Leader Blues

Thursday, December 14, 2006

TOP STORY >>Director search is now down to seven finalists

By PEG KENYON
Leader staff writer

While mopping up mismanagement issues, the evolving Jacksonville Housing Authority Board of Commissioners has also pared down the number of applicants for its new executive director from 17 to seven. Thousands of dollars are in jeopardy of being lost by the Jacksonville Housing Authority, which oversees the Max Howell Place and rent subsidy vouchers for low-income families, disabled people and the elderly, according to Jim Durham, the chairman of the newly appointed JHA Board.
“Prior to the air-conditioning unit project that we got underway, there was $1.2 million in unexpended grants available,” Durham said. “And $40,000 from FY 2003 capital fund budget must be spent by the end of March 2007, or it will be lost.”
By lost, Durham means the money would be turned back to the federal government. He hopes this money will fund a project to make the entire Max Howell Place handicapped accessible by installing ramps, showers and doors to make life a little easier for disabled individuals.

The local JHA board, now comprised of all new members, is seeking to turn the tide following a federal review, which began in June. As the review by the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development got underway this past summer, the JHA executive director Virginia Simmons and its Board with the exception of one commissioner, all, resigned. The last remaining holdout—-Fred West—-eventually resigned and Jacksonville City Council appointed an entirely new JHA Board.

At the time she stepped down, Simmons was receiving an annual salary of more than $50,000. Before she left in July, Simmons who had served as JHA executive director for about 14 years also received $10,000. Jim Durham, the new chairman of the JHA Board, believes the former director did not deserve all of the additional cash. “This is generally given for a job well done,” Durham says. “I’m not satisfied she should have been paid those funds.” In mid-June, HUD requested 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 on 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 by 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 also 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 excess of $25,000”, or adequately keep documentation of solicitations.

The new JHA Board is also concerned over a unit, which has been vacant for about the past two years. A meth lab bust rendered it uninhabitable. The new commissioners have already discussed the possibility of demolishing the entire building, which housed two units. After that, a new building could be constructed in hopes of attracting a police officer to live in one side while the other side could be used as computer lab for youth living at the Max Howell apartment complex. Funding for this project could come from a grant, commissioners surmised at one of their previous meetings.

Durham also recently reported to Jacksonville Police Department about a situation involving a Sam’s credit card and the former executive director. “The card has her name and the housing authority on it,” he says. Durham explained that no bills from this card have been received but if there were any debt not being paid, JHA could ultimately be held responsible. At this time, he is attempting to close the account. His first attempt failed here. “I was told that I couldn’t close it because I was not the primary cardholder,” Durham said. Asked about if any investigation was ongoing, Capt. Charley Jenkins, JPD public information officer, replied, “No, it is not under investigation…it is only an information report and there is no wrongdoing alleged in this report.”

The synopsis of the report reads, “credit card (company) still in wrong name.” According to the report, Durham told police the ex-director still has the company’s Sam’s credit card but he was unsure of any personal information as to Simmons and “also unsure if there have been any purchases” made with this card since she resigned. Durham also stressed the importance of finding an executive director because of a “memorandum of agreement,” which HUD has devised to eliminate deficiencies uncovered by the review team. “It is HUD’s expectations,” he says.

In search of the next JHA executive director

The new JHA Board immediately launched a search for an executive director who is a self-starter and knowledgeable in housing authority operations. After advertising the position, 17 people sent in their resumes. Of the 17 applicants, five have already been contacted by Marilyn Canon, one of the JHA commissioners by Wednesday. She indicated that she would be contacting the remaining two on Wednesday afternoon. “Today is my personal deadline,” Canon said Wednesday. “We need someone yesterday.”

So far, no interviews have been scheduled for any of the seven applicants. Canon indicated her questioning of the applicants dealt with matters in need of clarification. “Some of the applicants weren’t clear as to whether they had a college degree or experience working at a housing authority,” Canon explained. “All seven of those applicants may not be called for interviews.”

Asked when would a new executive director would be selected, Canon replied, “Either by the end of this year or early next year.” The JHA Board of Commissioners are looking for someone who has both a college degree and housing authority experience but such an applicant has yet to show up. If not, Canon hopes for a quick learner. The selected applicant will need to possess extensive experience with grant writing, financial budgeting and supervisory skills in dealing with personnel. At one of its first meetings, the phrase, “Hit the ground running,” was used in connection with the type of the person needed to fill the position of executive director. Canon also asked those applicants about their salary requirements as well.