By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON, JUNE 12, 2012….A commission created in the wake of the Chelsea Housing Authority scandal has completed its work, and come up with 37 specific recommendations, including one requiring all housing authorities to hire independent auditors to look over their financial statements.
The Commission on Public Housing Sustainability and Reform was created by Gov. Deval Patrick after revelations that former Chelsea Housing Authority executive director Michael McLaughlin deceived state officials by grossly underreporting his exorbitant salary. The task force met for 60 days to quickly come up with some recommendations to improve transparency and accountability.
Patrick also wanted to look at the management and possible regionalization of housing authorities. The governor also proposed imposing new reporting and auditing requirements on local housing agencies and capping executive pay at $160,000 at the locally run authorities.
Aaron Gornstein, state undersecretary of housing and community development who led the task force, said their work represented a direct response to problems in Chelsea and Medford housing authorities. Commission members plan to continue discussing their final report this week.
“Through this cooperative process and with all stakeholders at the table, we have developed a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve the operations of public housing and the services provided to residents,” Gornstein said.
Gornstein said he was pleased with the “broad consensus” reached among the group. The commission included lawmakers, housing authority directors, municipal officials and representatives from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
“We are pleased with the outcome. We had very active participation from the groups represented,” Gornstein said after the final meeting Tuesday morning.
If the commission’s recommendations are adopted by the Legislature, each housing authority will be required to hire their own independent firms, at each authority’s expense, to audit their books. They do not need to hire a preferred firm, but can pick their own. Under current law, housing authorities are audited by state auditors at least once every three years, with some discretionary power available to the state auditor’s office to audit more frequently if an issue comes to their attention.
During the commission’s last meeting, Steven Merritt, executive director of the Norwood Housing Authority and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials’ appointee to the governor’s task force, said that when he has hired independent auditors in the past it cost his authority $4,500. Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Boston), another member of the task force, said he questioned whether the audits would cost each authority more money.
Colleen Doherty, executive director of the Taunton Housing Authority, responded “Can I just say, it could be worth every dime.”
Another task force recommendation would require smaller housing authorities, with less than 250 housing units, to create a unified system where they share resources and centralize some functions. There are 244 housing authorities statewide.
In March, some housing authority directors who gathered at the State House for an annual luncheon said they do not oppose regionalizing some services, and pointed to several authorities where such efforts have been successful, but argued pooling of resources should occur locally.
The commission recommended the creation of single, unified housing authority property management system consisting of local staff, regional supervision, along with technical staff and centralized back office assistance. Smaller housing authorities will be mandated to participate in the unified property management system. Gornstein said idea will create efficiency while still preserving local control.
The commission’s soon-to-be released report creates recommendations in five areas: asset management and governance; preservation of extremely low-income housing; funding for long-term preservation and sustainability; statutory and regulatory framework; and public process and transparency.
“I give a lot of credit to DHCD. We made far more progress than I expected from a 60-day commission,” said Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton), a member of the commission.
Gornstein said he expects an advisory committee will be appointed to implement the commission’s recommendations if they are turned into law by the Legislature.