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BOC, Housing Authority at odds over spending

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The board of the Housing Authority of Clayton County (HACC) has recently come under fire from some members of the county's Board of Commissioners (BOC), who believe the authority is wasting its money on programs and initiatives that fall outside its intended purpose.

This week, commissioners Gail Hambrick, Wole Ralph, and Sonna Singleton expressed criticism of "Boots on the Ground," a door-to-door initiative started by HACC in June of last year. The effort targets home owners who are at risk of foreclosure, and provides them with financial-education materials.

The three commissioners also criticized recent plans of the authority's board to spend a total of $55,000 on two separate feasibility studies to determine the cost, and benefits, of creating a retirement home for veterans, as well as a facility to house inmates who qualify for work-release programs.

On Tuesday, Hambrick made a motion that a letter be sent on behalf of the BOC to the authority's board, expressing the BOC's displeasure with the group's recent actions, and imploring the authority to abandon its plans. The motion carried 3-2, with BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson opposed to it.

In another action, Hambrick, Ralph, and Singleton also voted to deny Edmondson's request to re-appoint HACC Board Member Robert Walker, and instead, voted to install former Plumbing Board Member Curtis Green as a new member in his place.

Earlier this year, the BOC voted to make board appointments full-board appointments, rather than commissioner-driven appointments, as they had been.

According to Clayton County Staff Attorney Michael Smith, the board's letter to HACC would be a follow-up to a May 5 letter drafted by the county's legal department, on behalf of the board. Smith said the previous letter asked the authority to delay actions regarding the feasibility studies, and said that HACC's recent initiatives "would not be a wise and efficient use of the authority's funds."

According to HACC Executive Director Linda Valentine, the authority paid the Hill & Associates consulting firm approximately $2,000 a month, from June of last year, to run the Boots on the Ground program, but suspended the program in March, in order to restructure it.

Hambrick, who served on the Housing Authority board for nearly seven years prior to 2006, said the authority is spending "outrageous amounts" of money on programs that show no proven benefit to the county. She said she believes the authority's money could be better spent on other initiatives.

"How many people have actually been saved [from foreclosure] through this program?" said Hambrick, referring to the "Boots on the Ground" initiative. "How many people are you actually serving? I haven't seen any reports where those questions have been answered. It's a lot more expensive than it should be."

"If we were in the best of economies, the veteran's home, I could possibly swallow," Hambrick continued. "There are just too many people around here who don't have a place to live, and people in our system who are homeless. If they [homeless people] are out there in our county, I think it is our responsibility to work with them."

On Wednesday, Ralph expressed particular concern about having a work-release facility in Clayton County, saying that "a single dollar to subsidized housing for felons in Clayton County is too much." According to HACC's feasibility study proposal, the facility would "allow an inmate who is sufficiently trusted or can be sufficiently monitored to leave confinement to continue working at his or her current place of employment, allowing the inmate to continue paying court-ordered fines."

Singleton said Wednesday that "the housing authority is moving away from its mission," and "we have a lot of housing needs in this county that the program can work on, rather than some of these programs they are venturing out on."

According to County Attorney Smith, the members of HACC are appointed by the BOC, but the authority, itself, is a separate entity, with the power to sue and enter into its own contracts.

HACC's mission statement, according to Valentine, is "to provide decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing for low-and moderate-income residents in Clayton County." She said the authority's operating funds come from revenue generated by investment properties, primarily from the operation of Premier Garden Apartments in College Park, rather than from taxpayers' dollars.

Housing Authority Board Chairman James Searcy argued that the Boots on the Ground program has served as a powerful tool for the authority, giving crucial information directly to individuals whose homes have turned up in the county's foreclosure listings. He added that a veteran's retirement home and work-release center would fill vital service gaps in the county and the Southern Crescent.

"[Regarding] the veteran's home and the work-release facility, what the housing authority was in the process of doing for those was to get the feasibility study, so we could see whether it was a good idea to make these projects happen in Clayton County," Searcy said. "Something like a veteran's home in Clayton County would put the county on the map like never before. It would provide a large array of rehabilitative services.

"Boots on the Ground ... without a doubt, this proved to be our most prolific marketing tool," he continued. "If that program doesn't go forward, it would devastate our attempts to stem foreclosures in the county. We're not even using taxpayers' dollars for this thing. That Boots on the Ground program was a major part of our strategic plan ... until this goes forward, we can't do anything but our normal business and run our multi-family dwelling [Premiere Garden Apartments], because everything else they [the BOC] don't like."

Edmondson, who voted against the letter to condemn the HACC board, said the county's legal department investigated the feasibility studies and the Boots on the Ground program and found nothing that conflicts with the authority's mission statement. He said the recent actions by some members of the board against HACC are about "politics and control."

"I am of the opinion that the current members of the Clayton County Housing Authority have the county's best interests at heart," Edmondson said. "I also believe the Clayton County Housing Authority is thinking of new and innovative ways to accomplish its mission statement, which is to help low-income people with housing. Commissioner Hambrick's request last month asked that the legal council looks at those RFPs [requests for proposals] ... All we got is a two-page letter that says they are fine.

"In my mind, there is nothing wrong," he added. "I don't know what they [Hambrick, Ralph, and Singleton] are basing their concerns on, but it is not based on any information that I have been privy to, or that the board has asked them [HACC] to provide."

Bell could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Valentine said HACC would hold it's next regular meeting Wednesday, May 19 at Premier Garden Apartments, where the recent issues between the BOC and HACC will likely be discussed.

Smith said the board will likely send its letter to HACC by the end of this week.

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