July 25, 2003 – Turmoil involving federal concerns over management of the V.I. Housing Authority's finances could be brought to an abrupt halt Monday, if legislation Gov. Charles W. Turnbull sent to the Senate Friday morning is enacted.
Included in other legislation, Turnbull sent a bill dissolving the current VIHA board and authorizing appointment of an interim board to serve no longer than 180 days.
The governor's action comes after a July 10 meeting he had with and Michael Liu, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department assistant secretary for public and Indian housing. Four days later, the governor was taken ill and was hospitalized for a week for treatment of a bleeding ulcer. He was released from Roy L. Schneider Hospital on Monday.
Liu also had appeared unexpectedly at a Senate Housing Parks and Recreation Committee hearing on the evening of July 9. There, he expressed HUD concerns about the Housing Authority's financial records, especially those from Fiscal Year 2002.
It soon became apparent that HUD's concerns extend beyond sloppy bookkeeping. Federal housing officials have reportedly asked the V.I. government about the status of a $12 million loan dating from 1999. Another issue is some $3.5 million in services rendered by VIHA to the V.I. government for which it is still awaiting compensation. And HUD is seeking repayment of $651,000 expended for the now-defunct Housing Authority Police.
In his cover letter to Senate President David Jones accompanying the legislation on Friday, Turnbull said: "An issue of grave concern is the current status of the VIHA. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has asked that the Housing Authority accept voluntary receivership, or in the alternative, that all outstanding loans be paid immediately unless we can demonstrate that we are capable of addressing the concerns raised by HUD. One of the problem areas, which HUD has identified is the ineffectiveness of the current board….
"HUD has lost confidence in the current board and is of the opinion that the current board cannot resolve the problems plaguing the Housing Authority. We have been informed that addressing the composition of the board would be a step in the right direction."
Turnbull continued: "Therefore, I am recommending the dissolution of the current board and authorization to appoint an interim board." He concluded: "It is crucial that we address and rectify these problems immediately."
As the governor's message was sent down Friday morning, the Housing Parks and Recreation Committee, chaired by Sen. Emmett Hansen II, was hearing testimony on St. Croix on those same VIHA problems.
"I have issues with the way it was handled," Hansen said on Friday afternoon of the governor's approach to the problem. "It doesn't seem there was enough coordination with the board while it was trying to maintain control. It effectively places us in receivership, or we pay the$12 million right now."
He acknowledged that "the board is extremely disorganized. They have ideas about how it should be run, but there's nothing in writing."
But, he added, "My real concern, however, isn't the feelings of the board members; it's how it affects the services rendered to residents."
Further, Hansen said, "The situation points out what I've said consistently — we shouldn't have commissioners working on these boards. A commissioner doesn't have time to sit on a board and preform due diligence. They're put there by virtue of their positions."
Members of the board include Fitzgerald Rowe, the chair; Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert; and Housing Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson.
Repeated telephone calls Friday morning and afternoon to the VIHA office, the Housing Parks and Recreation Department and Government House failed to yield the full list of the current VIHA board members. Nobody at Government House in three different calls could provide information on whom the governor has appointed to the board.
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