Leader Blues

Monday, January 22, 2007

TOP STORY >>Housing director seeking reforms

By PEG KENYON
Leader staff writer

Phil Nix, the new executive director of the Jacksonville Housing Authority, sounded optimistic in an interview this week, saying he can turn around the troubled agency, which is under order by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develop-ment to comply with the federal regulations. “Top priority is to get the housing authority out of trouble,” Nix said. “I want to fix the problems at hand to reach a high performance rating.”

The authority has a memorandum of agreement with HUD to comply with rules that have been violated in the past.
Nix said, “We didn’t reach this status overnight, and we’re not going to fix it overnight.” On Thursday, his second day on the job, Nix had conducted meetings assigning duties to staff members, such as better training for the new JHA board members and JHA staff; revise the five-year authority plan; records keeping; review, revise and adopt a personnel policy, establish a contracting file system and devise procurement policies.

“Procurement policies is, basically, how we’re going to do our purchasing,” he explained. The current five-year agency plan was implemented in 2005. Nix said he would be looking over the plan this year. “There may be some of it that is still usable,” Nix said. New ideas for other projects may also be in the offing for the beleaguered authority, which oversees the Max Howell Place, a low-income housing complex comprised of 100 units located off Quince Hill Road as well as hundreds of thousands in dollars rental housing vouchers.

Looking over the public housing’s grounds, Nix deemed its condition comparable to other housing authority units he has encountered for almost two decades. “It looks pretty good,” he says. Despite his assessment of the Max Howell Place, Nix appears to believe there is room for improvement. “We will be hiring an architect to do a physical needs assessment,” Nix said, “By springtime, we should know what our grounds plan should be.”

Asked about one unit, which has been vacant since a meth lab operation was discovered in it, Nix replied, “We will either hire a contractor to make it completely safe or look at the process of tearing it down.” The new director’s initial base salary will be $57,000 plus basic benefits, according to Jim Durham, chairman of the JHA board. After completing the steps mapped out in the memorandum of agreement, his annual salary could reach up to $62,000. Last fall, a new JHA board was formed following a tumultuous summer at the housing authority. The old JHA board of directors, which had one vacant slot, lost as three of its four remaining members.

The fourth member later resigned as well. Before those resignations, Virginia Simmons, the then executive director at JHA, stepped down as a HUD review got underway. Her annual salary was about $50,000. In mid-June, HUD officials asked for records of contracts and work orders for more than $132,000 spent by the housing authority. The federal agency wanted to scrutinize all contracts and purchase orders. HUD also requested those documents to be pulled and made available on June 28.

On June 27, a JHA employee told HUD officials that Simmons had directed her to create four contracts and to call the contractors to get them 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 applications had been made for the grant, making the housing authority ineligible for funding.

HUD officials concluded that these actions were taken in an attempt on the part of the executive director to document evidence to support contracts had legitimately been entered into before the obligation deadline of Sept. 26, 2005. The HUD review also alleges that the JHA “did not properly advertise for bids in the excess of $25,000” or adequately kept documentations of solicitations.

Nix was hired from among 17 applicants. Nix moved here from the Morgan City Housing Authority in Louisiana. His career background includes being an executive director for the Lee County Housing Authority in North Fort Myers, Fla. He was also a former executive director with the Clay Center Housing Authority in Kansas between 2003 and 2005. Nix graduated from Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., with a grade-point average of 3.9 in 1999. He also has a public-housing manager certificate as well as other certificates in capital fund program, advanced procurement and contract administration, which will help in rectifying problems with purchasing/procurement and contracting bid-letting documentation/record-keeping uncovered by the HUD review in Jacksonville.