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Public housing agency tries to shed substandard label

Springfield group gets federal help to improve performance.

Springfield Metropolitan Housing Authority board members will make changes a consultant recommended to help the public housing agency out of its substandard financial designation.

The SMHA’s Board of Commissioners unanimously accepted changes a consulting firm contracted by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development offered.

Those include that the housing authority eliminate four positions from the central office and housing choice voucher program and hire four other positions to improve the public housing program, according to the report.

The commissioners discussed the changes at a nearly two-hour meeting last week, spent mostly in executive session. The resolution adopted the recommendations contained in the report, subject to any collective bargaining agreement or other legal rights of affected employees.

“The bottom line is it’s economics,” said board member Kent Sherry. “It’s balancing the books.”

SMHA Executive Director Par Tolliver was authorized to make the changes “as he deems appropriate” in consultation with lawyers, according to the resolution.

Tolliver said it’s unfortunate these decisions had to be made, but similar cuts are being made around the country.

“These are painful moments, but what do you do?” Tolliver said. “The funding dictates how we operate.”

SMHA provides 644 units for more than 1,000 people in Springfield. They’re funded by HUD, which coordinates housing assistance for the federal government. SMHA owns and operates five apartment complexes, including Cole Manor, Hugh Taylor Apartments, Robert C. Henry Homes, Grayhill Apartments, Murray Apartments and Sherman Court. SMHA also owns Lincoln Park, but it is managed by a different organization.

The organization currently has 26 full-time and four temporary employees.

“I have a good staff,” Tolliver said. “You hate to lose any of them, but transition is what we’re going through and been going through since I’ve been here.”

Phineas Consulting was hired by the federal government last September to help provide technical assistance and training to the public housing authority until June. They’ve provided assessments and recommendations in areas such as finances, procurement, public housing as well as organizational structure and staffing levels.

The consultants reviewed the 2014 budget to determine if it was both balanced and in compliance with HUD regulations. The consultants broke down each program and provided recommendations.

The authority’s budget is broken into three separate funds — central office, housing choice voucher and public housing. While the choice voucher and public housing budgets receive direct funding from HUD, the central office budget does not — the funding comes from the oversight of those programs.

An audit of the central office showed several deficiencies, including inappropriately charging maintenance and employee salaries to the wrong funds and allocating office costs to the wrong funds. The central office reported an approximately $21,000 loss for 2013 and is projected for a loss of approximately $216,000 this year.

The firm recommended contracting out pest control services, which had been performed by maintenance staff once or twice per week, Tolliver said. It also recommended filling the vacant procurement specialist at a salary of approximately $48,000 per year.

The housing choice voucher program, also known as Section 8, is projected to have an approximately $90,000 deficit this year based on expected HUD funding. The firm recommended eliminating two positions to help balance the budget, including one case manager, to help increase the average caseload per manager. The report says the case managers currently have 250, below the industry standard of 400 to 450 each.

According to the report, the four public housing units — Cole Manor, Grayhill Homes, Henry-Sherman Homes and Hugh Taylor Homes — have a positive cash flow balance.

Several deficiencies, however, “can largely be traced to the inadequate staffing level at each property.” The deficiencies include tenant files not being maintained according to HUD regulations, work orders not completed or closed in a timely fashion and a large amount of tenant accounts being written off. In 2013, the amount of uncollected tenant account receivables was $162,890 or $234 per unit, according to the report. The industry standard is approximately $15 per unit.

SMHA’s public housing program is currently staffed with four positions, including three asset managers and an intake specialist. The industry standard is one administrative employee for every 75 units, meaning SMHA should have a total of eight administrative positions. The firm recommended hiring three assistant managers — positions existed previously but were eliminated and never filled — and assign them to the properties.

“Without additional staffing, SMHA’s public housing operations will likely continue to be designated as sub-standard by HUD,” the report states.

Early last year, the authority eliminated five positions and reduced management hours due to cuts from HUD and the federal sequestration process. Tolliver said the management team’s reduced hours just ended in December.

“We’re trying to get this thing out of the red,” Sherry said. “We want to make it run smoothly.”

Tolliver said HUD sees the organization as going “in the right direction,” but doesn’t want them to “fall backward.” They’re the only agency in Ohio receiving technical assistance from outside of HUD.

“They want to make sure we come into compliance,” Tolliver said.

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