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Legislators Divided on Maine Housing Accountability

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by Terrilyn Simpson

A bill to make the director of the Maine State Housing Authority accountable to the MSHA board of commissioners is being sponsored by Senator Jonathan Courtney, a Republican from York County who is also the Senate Majority Leader.

The MSHA director is currently not accountable to the MSHA board, nor is the holder of that position routinely answerable to any other authority. And a 1987 state statute is somewhat vague about a removal process, indicating only that the Housing Authority director can be removed by the governor “for inefficiency, neglect of duty or misconduct in office….”

The proposed bill, which had to pass muster with legislative leadership for approval to be entered into the legislative process late, has moved successfully through an initial ballot process with a six to four vote that split along party lines.

Support for the bill came from Republican leadership that included Speaker of the House Bob Nutting, Senate President Kevin Raye, Senate Majority Leader (and the bill sponsor) Jonathan Courtney, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, House Majority Leader Phil Curtis and Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing.

Democratic leadership cast ballots in opposition to allowing consideration of the bill. Those legislative leaders include Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, House Minority Leader Emily Cain, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond and Assistant House Minority Leader Terry Hayes.

Senator Courtney expressed disappointment at the party polarization and the lack of Democratic support for moving the bill forward. “I’m a little disappointed we didn’t receive bilateral support.” He pointed out that the sole purpose of the bill is to improve accountability, “to make the Housing Authority accountable to the commissioners….. similar to the Turnpike Authority….” He said if the board is not happy with performance, the measure would give the board the ability to replace the director. “I’m not suggesting I’m interested in replacing this director but there is currently no accountability as such.”

As the position is now structured, the director is appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Current MSHA director Dale McCormick was appointed by former governor John Baldacci in 2010.

Courtney also expressed concern that “some of the same people opposing this bill” opposed similar measures to investigate practices at the Maine Turnpike Authority.

Scrutiny of the Turnpike Authority led to revelations of hundreds of thousands of dollars in misspent funds and the resignation of MTA Executive Director Paul Violette who, beyond being required to make restitution, may potentially face criminal charges.

The Housing Authority, under the scrutiny of five new board members, including State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and four other commissioners appointed by Governor Paul LePage, has also drawn sharp criticism in recent months — for a series of problems ranging from shoddy housing inspections to exorbitant spending practices.

Soon after being seated, Poliquin and newly appointed board chairman Peter Anastos discovered that the MSHA director was not giving any consideration to cost in the process of allocating credit to low-income housing projects. That prompted the new board to ask to see the numbers — something which had not occurred previously — which led to the next startling discovery. MSHA was poised to move ahead — and had given initial approval — to a housing complex in Portland at a cost of between $309,000 and $314,000 per 1100 square-foot unit and had approved — and allowed the completion of — a complex in Waterville at a cost of more than $290,000 per unit.

The board was next lambasted with an apartment issue in another part of the state. It appeared that MSHA and Avesta Housing, under contract with MSHA, had for two years ignored deplorable living conditions — including waste bubbling into sinks — and the terrorization of tenants by a felonious family member of the landlord — in a low-income apartment complex in Norway. US Senator Susan Collins is currently pushing for a HUD investigation of the MSHA/Avesta handling of the matter.

Senator Alfond, one of the legislative leaders opposing the accountability legislation, sits on the board of Avesta Housing and is involved on a business level in several housing projects, including an upscale complex at 645 Congress in Portland under the property management of Avesta.

MSHA commissioners have also started to look at the MSHA director’s disbursement of taxpayer dollars to a series of charities seemingly unrelated to housing — including several contributions totalling $14,450 to a theater and arts group of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people established “to initiate social change” according to the group’s website.

According to State Treasurer Poliquin, “The executive director of MSHA should report to its board like at every other quasi independent authority in Maine.”

The Housing Authority is one of approximately a dozen quasi-governmental “instrumentalities” in the state — created by an act of the Legislature to carry out statutorily defined essential public purposes. And MSHA is the only state instrumentality, according to Poliquin, whose executive director is not accountable to its board.

With 140 employees, an annual operating budget of $14 million (just to run the enterprise, emphasized Poliquin) and with $1.6 billion in outstanding bonds, ensuring accountability “would enable the board to oversee the cost efficient spending of Maine taxpayer dollars.”

“Currently, the MSHA executive director is accountable to nobody…..”

And with diminishing federal funds flowing from D.C. to Maine, making every dollar count has become especially important, he emphasizes.

“MSHA,” said Poliquin, “has been plagued by problems.”

“Spending almost $300,000 for an 1100 square-foot apartment with so many vulnerable on a waiting list….we need to house as many homeless and disadvantaged families as we can…..” There are currently 6500 Mainers waiting for housing.

“On any given night there’s nearly 800 Mainers sleeping in homeless shelters…… thousands who do not have a safe warm apartment to call home,” said Poliquin.

Senator Debra Plowman (R), Hampden, who helped to push the legislative accountability measure forward, said she’ll likely sign on as a co-sponsor once the bill is drafted. “Recent focus on the actions of the Maine Turnpike Authority was quick to show that without oversight of an accountable director, public policy decisions, especially financial, become the private playground for spending of public funds. The Maine Housing Authority deserves that scrutiny now and that accountability to the people. OPEGA will begin the scrutiny and this legislation gets at the accountability piece.”

OPEGA — the office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability– is slated to conduct a review of MSHA at a date yet to be determined.

Courtney expects his MSHA accountability bill to be drafted by the end of the week.

Calls to MSHA Director Dale McCormick, and legislative leaders Barry Hobbins and Emily Cain, were not returned.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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