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Without Plan, Maine Housing Fires All Section 8 Administrators

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by Terrilyn Simpson

George and Ric were on the air.

And so was the husband of someone who worked for the Section 8 housing division of a Maine community action program — known as a CAP Agency.

It was Monday morning at the George Hale/Ric Tyler talk show on WVOM Radio in Bangor. And a man called in, in response to a discussion about the proposed legislative bill mandating accountability for the director of the Maine State Housing Authority. The caller said his wife, who works for a CAP agency, had received a telephone call the previous Friday night, after work hours, from her boss who informed her that MSHA was pulling all the Section 8 jobs from all the agencies in the state. And that as a result, this man’s wife was going to lose her job. If that occurred, he said, they would lose their home. The man was emotional, sounding close to tears.

Instead of firing everyone who was doing their job, he suggested, why didn’t they look at holding a director accountable if she wasn’t doing her job?

No one had an answer for him.

The caller said there was going to be some kind of a meeting in Augusta the next day, at MSHA, to explain the whole thing.

The account was accurate about the loss of Section 8 jobs.

Agencies with Section 8 low-income housing contracts with MSHA reportedly received calls on Friday — around the time MSHA was releasing the report they were referring to as an audit, of Section 8 housing problems in Norway, Maine. The calls were reportedly made by MSHA Director Dale McCormick, personally informing agency management she was pulling all Section 8 contracts in the state. No evaluations. No conferences. No consultations. No reasons. No plan for implementation — except for a quick time frame.

And according to a spokesperson for the Maine State Housing Authority, with no idea of how many people MSHA is firing. That was the actual response. “The number has not been determined.”

That response came after calls to four MSHA staff members and two emails.

Pressed for an estimate, the MSHA spokesperson responded, “No rough estimate available.”

Which is strange, because the positions being eliminated encompass all screening for Section 8 low-income housing, all administration, all management and all inspections — all over the state, as far away as Presque Isle in Aroostook County, just 10 or 12 miles from the Canadian border, to Parsonfield, Maine, in York County and on the New Hampshire border.

According to documents obtained by The Maine Heritage Policy Center, yearly Section 8 voucher administration fees total more than $1.1 million.

And all these positions, said McCormick, will be taken over by MSHA, which doesn’t know how many positions there are, and which is located in Augusta — nowhere near much of the Section 8 client housing MSHA is going to be overseeing.

So is McCormick’s sweep-of-the-hand-accountable-to-nobody decision a solution or a ruse?

McCormick said she’s being bold.

She announced that in a press release that accompanied the report she’s calling an audit on how MSHA and their contractual partner Avesta Housing didn’t have any checks and balances in place to oversee their Section 8 housing. MSHA issued a statement trying to make the audit sound more authoritative and independent by saying the MSHA auditor was answerable to the MSHA commissioners — and not the MSHA director (McCormick) — but MSHA/McCormick forgot to tell the commissioners who received the report-that’s-called-an-audit along with members of the public, after McCormick’s office had edited it.

It didn’t help that it appeared that MSHA and Avesta — the subjects of the audit/report — had largely orchestrated it and authored it and that the auditor, whose name was nowhere to be found, had offered almost no substantiation.

So McCormick is firing a bunch of Section 8 people and she called their bosses in person so they wouldn’t read in the newspaper that they were losing their jobs, but she doesn’t know how many people she’s firing.

And she’s having the agency she oversees — MSHA — take over jobs all over the state to oversee the housing of some of the most vulnerable tenants in the state — inhabitants of Section 8 low-income housing — but she doesn’t know how many jobs she has to fill. And McCormick is doing all of this to demonstrate a bold response to MSHA’s complete failure to oversee — or to pay any attention whatsoever to — a handful of Section 8 low-income tenancies in Norway, with much of that failure firmly resting with MSHA.

McCormick said this will all happen quickly, within nine months — or maybe by February.

The housing agencies have seen nothing in writing yet because, according to a housing director, they’ve been told there’s no written plan yet.

The report was released to the public and to MSHA commissioners late on a Friday afternoon — in the same time frame in which McCormick was telephoning housing agents that MSHA was taking over all Section 8 jobs, determining the layoff of numerous employees at housing agencies throughout the state. Though categorizing her step as a bold, the lack of any substantive details suggests more of a public relations ploy — in reaction to the questionable performance record of MSHA — than an action intended to better MSHA services.

Penquis CAP was a recipient of one of McCormick’s calls. Jennifer Giosia, director of housing and energy services at Penquis, said they were told that all Section 8 jobs would be taken over, to be administered by MaineHousing, within the next nine months. There were no specifics, she said. “We were surprised. We were informed late Friday so that we could notify staff in advance of anything coming out…”

Giosia said Penquis has been doing the job for many years. “We have a good relationship with the clients. We feel we do a great job. We wish we could have talked to MaineHousing.” Penquis, who handles about 650 vouchers, with a couple of thousand people on the waiting list, oversees low-income Section 8 housing for Waldo, Knox, Penobscot and Piscataquis Counties, a contract worth about $324,000 in 2010. The CAP agency was not consulted by MSHA.

“Hopefully some of the staff can be hired by MaineHousing. We’re not sure how this will work — we’re hoping there will be no interruption to client services,” Giosia worried.

The meeting referenced by the radio show caller did take place the day following his call, at Augusta-based MSHA headquarters, the spacious office complex overlooking the banks of the Kennebec River.

Members of the press were not allowed to attend, according to a security officer who patrolled the lobby. Asked exactly what kind of meeting it was, the security person said it was an invitation only meeting. His message was later reinforced by four additional staff members, two of whom reiterated that no press was allowed. Asked why, communications director Peter Merrill blamed the law. Asked what law, his answer was succinct. “The Maine law.”

A person whose presence McCormick had not likely anticipated was Peter Anastos, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. Anastos had found out by happenstance, in part a result of the radio caller — and on the heels of the audit report release — that there was to be a meeting pertaining to Section 8 Housing agents, including the staffers who had just been told they were losing their jobs.

Anastos was already bothered by audit report statements regarding the role of the MSHA commissioners which he considered inaccurate. “That I didn’t know anything about it bothers me,” said Anastos. “The press release came out of MSHA that the auditor is responsible to the board and not to MSHA was news to me.”

“The audit was ordered by MSHA, substantially written by MSHA, edited by MSHA and released by MSHA. They acted like the board had a role. The board was not involved,” said a somewhat incredulous Anastos. But if Anastos was surprised by the MSHA press release, he was blindsided by the PowerPoint presentation at the by-invitation-only meeting — a meeting he had not been invited to and apparently was not expected to attend, given the statements made there. Because when the discussion turned to MSHA bringing all the Section 8 jobs in-house — thereby taking them away from all the current holders of those positions, the MSHA staff member announced to those in attendance that “these are changes that were suggested and recommended by the board of commissioners.”

Not wanting to interrupt, Anastos sat in somewhat stunned silence — until the statement was repeated — again blaming the unwitting board of MSHA commissioners. “These statements were being presented to people losing their jobs,” he said.

Anastos interrupted to say he wanted to clear the record. He told them exactly that, explaining, “The only thing we suggested was taking photos (of inspection violations and corrections) and talking to code enforcement officers.”

“I’m the head of the board of commissioners,” he told them, “and I didn’t know anything about bringing everything in-house.” He said he was there to learn what was going on just like them.

Not ready to comment on the substance of the matter — whether an eventual Section 8 takeover by MSHA would ultimately be appropriate or not, Dan Billings, Chief Counsel to the Governor, has identified both McCormick’s rapid fire decision — apparently made before the report was even released — and the failure to invite any input or consideration, as problematic. “It illustrates the lack of accountability,” said Billings, who questioned the appropriateness of orchestrating such a major change in the administration of the Section 8 housing program without giving the legislature, the governor or even the MSHA commissioners the opportunity to weigh in. McCormick did not allow policy makers any time to even react to the report, said Billings. And that “seems somewhat inconsistent with the audit report…. which presumes a slower process.”

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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