After three years of “substandard” scores from federal housing officials, the Omaha Housing Authority has received a much-improved annual report card — and has moved back to “standard” status.
The agency earned an overall score of 80 out of 100 points on its U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report card for 2012, up from 65 a year earlier. It’s a notable jump after a three-year period in which OHA experienced a significant turnover of staff and board members and faced scrutiny over its finances.
Still, HUD is looking for OHA to make even bigger improvements. Federal and local housing officials recently agreed to a work plan that aims to fix a long list of problems HUD turned up in an audit of OHA’s operations over the past decade.
Those problems included the misappropriation of millions of dollars in federal funds, poor financial reporting and allegations of “inappropriate interference” on the board by elected officials.
Clifford Scott, OHA’s executive director since 2011, said many of the problems revealed in the audit summary took place several years ago. More recently, the agency has been taking specific steps to get on track.
Scott said that began with staff layoffs in 2011.
“It stabilized our personnel costs, first and foremost,” he said. “Thereafter we looked to really track our expenses a lot better than we have in the past, meaning there is a much higher degree of oversight.”
Scott said that means all kinds of expenses — even those as small as office supplies — must be run past several people before they are approved.
Jennifer Taylor, OHA’s board chairwoman, said the agency’s financial reporting is notably better than it was just a few years ago. The recent hire of a new finance director, she said, is another good step.
“It’s taken a while to get our financial house in order, but I think our financial house is fairly secure,” she said.
HUD has not released the full audit to OHA. The federal agency also denied a Freedom of Information Act request from The World-Herald for the contents of the audit.
In a denial letter issued nearly three months after the request for the audit, HUD officials said the request was denied under an exemption “which protects all law enforcement proceedings that are prospective and could reasonably be expected to cause some articulable harm.”
HUD declined to clarify its statement.
Scott said he has not been notified of any law enforcement proceedings.
Taylor said she and other board members had hoped to see more results of HUD’s audit and will ask for more specifics.
“I want to make sure that everyone has a full and complete understanding of where the funds came from and where they went,” she said. A “recovery agreement” signed by Scott, Taylor, a HUD official and Mayor Jean Stothert requires OHA to provide regular reports on its progress.
The newly released scorecard shows that OHA is already meeting some of the standards outlined in the agreement. Scott said that with more stability in OHA’s finances, the agency can turn to other challenges, like its aging housing stock.
“We still need the Omaha community to be patient with OHA,” he said.