HUD cuts off funding to Richland Housing Authority

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerOctober 15, 2009 

The Richland Housing Authority will turn its Section 8 housing voucher program over to another housing authority after learning the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is cutting off its funding effective Nov. 1.

The board authorized Chairman Britt Creer at a special meeting Wednesday to enter negotiations with either the Kennewick Housing Authority or Housing Authority of Pasco and Franklin County to take over the roughly 400 clients whose Section 8 rental vouchers are managed through the Richland agency.

The Section 8 program is a federally subsidized program that provides rental assistance for families whose income falls below a certain threshold.

The Richland Housing Authority's management of the program came under fire after a HUD management review conducted in June. That review found the authority had misused housing assistance payment money, continued to allow a perceived conflict of interest it previously told state auditors had been resolved and couldn't account for nearly $500,000 in housing assistance money from HUD.

A corrective action plan was submitted to HUD in September but it was deemed too little, too late, said Connie Taresh, Richland Housing Authority acting director.

Taresh learned in an Oct. 6 telephone conference with HUD officials from Seattle that no money would be coming in November.

The housing authority was left in the position of either voluntarily giving up management of its Section 8 program or having HUD take it away.

"We will voluntarily give it up to keep our clients safe," Taresh said.

Joe Schiessl, planning and redevelopment manager for the city of Richland, said the city government will work with the housing authority, which is an independent nonprofit agency, to determine the best place for the vouchers.

For another agency to take over the vouchers, it first must have a contract with HUD and approval from the city to provide services within its boundaries, Schiessl said.

Otherwise, city government has no jurisdiction over the Richland Housing Authority, except that the city council appoints housing authority board members, Schiessl said.

Taresh said housing authority clients shouldn't notice any difference when the transfer is made, but can't say for certain until she knows which agency will assume control. The new agency could decide to adjust the amount of rent subsidy to bring Richland's vouchers in line with its own policies if they differ.

The decision about which agency will take over the Richland Section 8 vouchers must be made before Oct. 31.

Also Wednesday, the board voted 2-1 to fire former Executive Director Al Watson, citing numerous conflicts of interest that continued after Watson had signed an agreement to end the conflicts.

Watson was asked to resign in September and placed on paid administrative leave. The reason given at the time was that his was the highest salary in the office and the agency needed to save money to repay HUD.

But Creer told the board Wednesday that Watson "declined our invitation to resign" and asked for a settlement that included full wages and benefits through October. That would cost the housing authority $22,000 to $23,000, he said.

Creer said he had learned from Scott Pernaa, the housing authority's accountant, that the agency would have to forgo payroll for the month to pay Watson that sum.

"I think we owe more to the employees here working," said board member Liza Rue.

Rue and board member Alfred Rizzo voted in favor of firing Watson. The agency would have to pay him $5,000 to $7,000 for his wages through the termination date.

Sheryl William, the former chairwoman who was replaced by Creer in September, voted against firing Watson. Creer abstained from the vote as board chairman. Board Vice Chairwoman Theta Ellsworth was absent.

-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com

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