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Publish Date: 3/12/2005

Housing authorities at odds
Report says questionable accounting practices led to violation of regulations


LONGMONT — A newly released federal investigation into accounting errors at the Boulder County Housing Authority is adding fuel to an already protracted and public dispute between the agency and its Longmont counterpart, which are battling over the right to manage federal funds in the city.

The report, released this week, says shoddy accounting practices and management led the county’s housing authority to violate federal housing rules.

On one hand, the report represents a setback in the county’s efforts to show it is a responsible steward of federal money. But it also raises questions about the Longmont Housing Authority’s plans for the money, and its efforts to take control of federal dollars managed by the county.

Specifically, the Longmont Housing Authority says it could use some federal money controlled by the county to improve other housing programs in the city — precisely what the county’s housing authority got into trouble for doing.

And all of this came the same week that a deeply divided Longmont City Council refused to back its own housing authority’s efforts to seize control of county-managed federal money. The 4-3 vote by the council Tuesday night further muddies the relationship between the two housing authorities and between the usually cooperative county and city.

“We’re driving a wedge between us, and I don’t understand why,” said Councilman Marty Block. “We’re fighting for really the same money. It’s federal money, it’s limited and it’s about to get more limited. We started on the wrong foot and it’s time to back up.”

The dispute is over the management of Section 8 payments from the federal government to low-income residents. The payments permit people with little money to live in normal apartments, with the federal government picking up most of the tab. It’s a way of ensuring that low-income residents don’t get shunted into segregated developments.

Today, both Longmont and the county administer Section 8 vouchers within the city. Longmont has 477 Section 8 families in the city, while the county has 237. The Boulder housing authority has another 67 clients in Longmont.

Under federal rules, the authority administering the vouchers gets to take a cut off the top for management costs. For Section 8, that fee is $600 a year per voucher. For Boulder County, that amounts to $142,000 in fees within Longmont, money the city’s authority would like to have. And it’s not shy about seeking it.

Under 1985 and 1987 agreements between the county, Boulder and Longmont, each of the authorities is permitted to place Section 8 recipients anywhere in the county without losing control of the vouchers. Under federal law, control of the voucher is supposed to be given to the local authority.

The agreements take precedence over the federal law. But now the city is seeking to end the agreements. Longmont says having local control over every voucher used in the city would mean better service.

“It is easier for the voucher holder to have their voucher administered and services provided in Longmont since they must currently travel or otherwise deal with agencies in Boulder or Lafayette,” Councilman Fred Wilson and Kathy Fedler, the city’s affordable housing coordinator, said in urging the council to back the Longmont Housing Authority’s efforts to end the agreements.

But they also said: “Because of the sweeping changes being proposed to the Section 8 program (by the federal government), administrative fees are at a premium. It would greatly enhance LHA’s budget, increase their ability to assist Longmont residents, and would allow for greater local control of these funds to meet other pressing housing needs.”

And it’s that last sentence that has county housing managers upset. They say the federal investigation criticized them for using administrative fees improperly and that the city appears to be headed down the same path.

The regional inspector general for audit for the federal department of Housing and Urban Development reported this week that the Boulder County Housing Authority failed to properly account for money being used for administration.

Added Ruth Rodriguez, the county’s community services director: “I can guarantee that we are following HUD regulations and doing the best possible job managing federal HUD dollars.”

On Tuesday night, four council members — Block, Karen Benker, Tom McCoy and Roger Lange — killed a council resolution that offered support for the Longmont Housing Authority’s efforts to take control of the county’s vouchers in the city.

And that vote, a defeat for Wilson and Mayor Julia Pirnack, further muddies the waters that several mediators have already tried to clear.

“Although Longmont has always been very cooperative, we are responsible to protect the interest of our citizens,” Pirnack said. “I think that this (agreement) has gone on long enough where the city of Longmont is not being compensated for the administrative costs we are incurring. I think we need to be really careful about preserving a relationship with Boulder County at all costs. They are the major beneficiaries in all this.”

The majority of council members disagreed. They cited a letter from the county in which officials warned that dissolving the agreement could sour relationships in other areas, from housing programs such as Casa De La Esperanza, to unrelated areas of open space and road improvements.

Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at thughes@times-call.com.

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