By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, MN The Kandiyohi County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (Kandiyohi HRA) has been contracted to administer and manage the Meeker County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (Meeker HRA) as of Dec. 1.
“The Kandiyohi County HRA has a depth of experience, and is able to save Meeker HRA money on an annual basis,” said Maureen Melgaard-Schneider, member of Meeker HRA board.
Melgaard-Schneider was part of the executive committee formed by Meeker HRA to seek out a new executive director this past fall.
Jill Bengston, executive director for Kandiyohi County HRA, is currently handling the transition.
Bengston, or one of her staff, has been in the Meeker HRA office at the Dassel Apartments daily trying to ensure a smooth transition, which has proven to be more difficult than expected, she said.
The change in administration has come after the resignation of Meeker HRA executive director Sandy Tischer, who was under contract with Meeker HRA through her company Grand Central Realty.
Tischer resigned at a Meeker HRA meeting Aug. 23 in which the renewal of the contract with Grand Central Realty was discussed.
The change in management and administration of the Meeker HRA comes after several years of contention between the Meeker HRA board and the previous executive director after Meeker County commissioners were appointed to the Meeker HRA board.
“This is going to be a positive change,” Rebecca Warpula, Meeker HRA board member commented, adding, “Kandiyohi County HRA brings with it a lot of knowledge in managing public housing.”
The Kandiyohi County HRA also operates and manages 412 section 8 housing vouchers in Kandiyohi and McLeod counties, and 96 market rate rental units.
Several other programs are operated and managed by Kandiyohi County HRA including, a single-family home purchase/rehabilitate/resell program, a down-payment assistance program, a small cities development program for owner-occupied rehabilitation, and a family self-sufficiency program.
“We are hoping to have very professional and experienced people managing Meeker HRA,” Meeker HRA board member Amy Wilde said.
Kandiyohi County HRA is in the process of advertising for and hiring a staff person to work in the office at Dassel Apartments 35 hours per week.
The staff person will manage the Meeker HRA’s public housing and section 8 housing, along with managing McLeod County’s section 8 housing program.
“I hope that as time goes on, tenants will be more comfortable with the new management and feel that their needs are being met,” Bengston said. “It will take some time, but I’m looking forward to a good year in 2011.”
New director addresses Fox 9 News story at HRA meeting
Fox 9 News aired a story titled “Investigators: No Place Like Home” Dec. 14 in regards to the transitions in management and fire code violations at the Dassel Apartments.
When Bengston was asked by the Enterprise Dispatch about the story that aired on Fox 9 News, she said this would be addressed at the next HRA meeting, Dec. 20.
At the meeting, Bengston informed the Meeker HRA board, under normal circumstances, the two-and-a-half weeks she and her staff have been working on the transition in management would have been enough time to have things running smoothly.
However, Bengston has discovered issues that are making the transition more difficult than she expected them to be.
“Someone wants to make the transition miserable and doesn’t want it to go smoothly,” Bengston said.
Bengston noted that the Fox 9 News story claimed that the board had forced the previous executive director Tischer out, but the fact was that Tischer had decided to resign.
The news story also referred to the Dassel Apartments as being for vulnerable adults, when it is actually an apartment building for low income residents.
This is not to be confused with Dassel Lakeside Apartments, owned by Augustana Care.
There is no designation for the Dassel Apartments to only be for the elderly or disabled. Anybody who meets the income guidelines is eligible to live in the apartments, Bengston said.
In regards to the front door being locked, as reported by Fox 9, the building was designed to be a secure building, with a buzzer system, Bengston said.
At some point in time, someone decided it would be better for the front door to remain unlocked, but Bengston said she was not informed of this by the previous director during orientation.
It is an old buzzer system that some of the tenants have difficulty with because it does require going to the front door to allow someone in. They cannot just buzz someone in from their apartment, Bengston said.
Since Dec. 2, the door has been unlocked during the day, and this will continue, she said.
Bengston mentioned that upgrading the buzzer system would be a good capital project for the future, noting that residents would be safer with a secure entrance to the building.
Regarding snow removal, the exits going to the parking lot and sidewalks at either end of the building are clear and had been clear every day since Dec. 2, Bengston said.
The exits featured in the Fox 9 News story were exits leading to the backyard and patio, which were typically the responsibility of the caretaker, Bengston said.
Bengston informed the Meeker HRA board she has spoken with the person responsible for snow removal, and he will be clearing snow from these exits from now on.
Staff working in the office have also been informed to make sure sidewalks and entrances remain clear of snow and ice, said Bengston.
Meeker HRA board member Amy Wilde asked Bengston during the meeting if the tenants spoke to her or any of her staff before calling Fox 9 to the apartments.
“No, nothing was said to any of us. Craig (Watson, Kandiyohi HRA staff) was here the day before Fox 9 came, and nothing was said to him,” Bengston said.
Other concerns discovered
In trying to complete the transition, Bengston noted there were several things missing, such as personnel files, contracts, board meeting minutes, and signed leases for tenants currently residing in Meeker HRA units.
For instance, the person who does snow removal at the Dassel Apartments does not have a contract specifying his duties.
When he was questioned by Bengston about what his duties were regarding snow removal, he informed her he cleared the parking lot and the front sidewalks. The back entrances had been the responsibility of the caretaker.
It is unclear whether or not there was even a caretaker at the Dassel Apartments, though.
When she first arrived to begin the transition, Bengston was informed the caretaker had been told to give back the keys, and moved out of the caretaker unit into another unit.
Bengston could not find any personnel files for employees of Meeker HRA to verify the hire or the resignation of a caretaker.
However, board meeting minutes indicate a caretaker and a housekeeper had been hired at five hours per week each.
When the caretaker, Gary Gilbert, who was in attendance at the Meeker HRA meeting, was asked about the situation, he informed the board there had not been an application, letter of hire, or letter of resignation. It was all done on a “handshake.”
The board directed Bengston to meet with Gilbert, find out if he was still interested in the position, and to start a personnel file.
Another problem Bengston informed the board about was the draft audit of the Meeker HRA.
The auditor who put the draft audit together informed Bengston that the list of all payables, board minutes, and approved bills were not included in the information given to him to do the audit.
The auditor said the draft audit was not based on much of anything, and that a bank reconciliation had not been done since October 2009.
When Bengston asked Tischer about the bank reconciliation, she admitted it had not been done.
Tischer had been doing the accounting for Meeker HRA since November 2009, when the contract with the previous accountants was terminated due to the fact Tischer might begin doing consulting work privately with that accounting firm.
Bengston then contacted Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is the federal entity that oversees and provides funding for HRAs.
HUD informed Bengston a clean audit must be done and submitted to them, or Meeker HRA would be considered a “troubled entity.”
Bengston was directed to get at least two quotes for new auditors, and clarify with the current auditor what was happening and why a draft audit was even done with missing information.
Problems with audits in the past
In reviewing the minutes from past board meetings, the audit for Meeker HRA has been somewhat troubled in the last couple of years.
For instance, in March 2009, when Meeker HRA’s auditor was unable to attend a meeting to present the completed audit, Tischer informed the Meeker HRA board an audit was not required per federal and HUD guidelines.
Yet, in June 2009, the board meeting minutes state the audit is still in process. The audit is due to HUD by March 31 yearly.
Then, Tischer stated at the October 2009 board meeting that the 2008 audit was still not accepted by HUD, but again, reiterated it was not a requirement from HUD to do an annual audit.
It was also at this meeting the board decided to continue the contract with Benusa, Gruber, Meyers, and Associates for the 2009 audit.
By January 2010, Tischer informed the board Benusa, Gruber, Meyers, and Associates could no longer complete Meeker HRA’s audit because of new federal staff education requirements.
At the February 2010 meeting, the board approved a contract with Babcock, Langbein, and Company for the 2009 audit.
However, this audit was not performed on time either, due to an illness of the auditor, according to meeting minutes.
HUD provided an extension, and the 2009 audit was eventually completed by the new due date and accepted by HUD.