Originally created 01/07/01

Housing finances under fire



A citywide audit of government spending in 1999 found that Augusta's Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development wasn't spending enough.

And 1999 marked the third consecutive year that unspent neighborhood development money significantly exceeded the money spent, Atlanta HUD officials report.

Cities that fail to disburse federal grants quickly enough are required to report their shortfalls to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Augusta finance officials filed a corrective action plan Dec. 29, outlining how the city's Housing Department plans to spend government money in a more timely manner this year.

And the department's director, Keven Mack, is slated to appear before commissioners Monday at the administrative services committee meeting to address that plan.

"The problem dates back to 1994," Mr. Mack said Friday. "The city has a history of accumulating funds. It's a constant juggling game where you're shifting (money) from one project to another project."

Federal guidelines say a city's unspent dollars may only exceed what is disbursed by a ratio of 1.5 to 1.

But in 1999, unused Community Development Block Grant funds in Richmond County more than doubled its entitlements, HUD officials report. The ratio noted in the city's corrective action plan is slightly lower than HUD's figures because of when the statistics were studied.

"In Augusta the last couple of years we've had a problem," said John Perry, director of community planning and development for the Atlanta HUD office. "There are cities around that are worse. But there are some that are better than that, to be honest."

Atlanta and Albany also failed to comply with the entitlement ratio in 1999. And although Augusta's spending progressively worsened from 1996 to 1999, it looks to have improved slightly in 2000, local and state officials report.

Mr. Mack will tell commissioners that two new neighborhood development groups will continue to help the city disburse funds faster. He also has said that higher salaries would help decrease turnover in the Housing Department office, which would improve productivity.

But commissioners are expected to be critical.

"A number of commissioners are not quite satisfied with Mr. Mack and the job he's doing," said Commissioner Lee Beard. "There are a lot of concerns about the effectiveness of his department."

During a full commission meeting Tuesday, officials moved their discussions into a closed legal session, citing personnel matters, which are protected as privileged under state Sunshine Laws.

After emerging from an 86-minute legal session, the panel voted unanimously to terminate City Comptroller Lon Morrey. Commissioners then directed the interim administrator to prepare a presentation on the organization of the Housing Department for Monday's committee meeting.

Mr. Beard said Thursday that the commission is looking for ways to streamline the department for efficiency and cost-saving measures.

"Just like finance, if people are not accountable and not doing their job, it's the commission's job to examine it and make the proper correction," he said.

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.