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Audit finds housing program lapses

The Baltimore Sun

Highlighting a series of lapses in a federal program administered through the housing department, a long-awaited city audit released yesterday documented problems with missing and incomplete files, improperly recorded information and a failure to meet a federal requirement that could result in a revenue loss of nearly $2 million.

The fiscal 2006 audit of the Home Investment Partnerships Program, administered through the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, was presented to top city officials yesterday morning after more than a year of delays in obtaining the information.

Pratt's concerns

After the meeting, Comptroller Joan. M. Pratt, one of five members of the Board of Estimates, said she was concerned about the delay in getting the information and the potential loss of federal dollars.

"The lack of records, the lack of oversight, the lack of monitoring is of great concern to me," Pratt said. "Then you have errors occurring and documents not being signed and retained. And then just incomplete files or files not maintained for review by the auditors."

In the spring, the Board of Estimates - which approves city spending and contracts - demanded that housing officials provide the required information to the audits department.

'It's a lot of money'

"The untimeliness of getting back to us really jumps out at me," Pratt said. "It's a lot of money, and it's needed, especially during these times of subprime mortgages and people not being able to afford these homes."

Created by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in the early 1990s, the Home Investment Partnership Program is designed to provide residents with affordable homeownership and rental opportunities. About a half-dozen city employees work on the program, which administers $6.5 million to $7 million a year.

City Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the department ultimately agreed with most of the findings and blamed the problems partly on three vacant positions - two of which have since been filled - and a "weakness in the maintenance of files."

Graziano said the department is looking into creating a new position, director of compliance, which would review all documents and work independently of the operating department.

'Significant changes'

"We're confident that all the work that was done was legitimate work and the people that were recipients are eligible recipients," he said. "It's really a question of some paperwork that needs to be better tracked in the project files. We're working on that, and we've made significant changes. We feel that once we create this special compliance position, we'll be on top of that."

Graziano said the department is appealing HUD's contention that it failed to spend available trust fund money within the required time and will therefore lose nearly $1.9 million from its 2006 award.

Graziano said the Board of Estimates approved $3 million last year to provide funding for homeownership programs run through East Baltimore Development Inc., a nonprofit that helps relocate residents displaced by Johns Hopkins Hospital's biotechnology park project.

"EBDI has certainly been working on that, and there's no doubt that the intent is to utilize this money in that fashion," said Graziano.

Though there is no fully executed agreement because of continuing discussions with the community, "it is clear what the intent was, and it is clear it is a real program," Graziano said.

Other findings included missing and incomplete homebuyer and rental project files; program income that was recorded improperly; and rental housing inspections that never occurred.

Graziano attributed the delay in getting the relevant records to the audit department to inadequate recordkeeping and file maintenance, and staff members who wrongly gave day-to-day program administration a higher priority than an obligation to address audit requirements.

This is the second recent instance of a lapse in Baltimore's housing department.

Last month, The Sun reported that the department had significantly slowed the process of offering city-owned properties for redevelopment

Not worried

Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, said the City Council president is not worried about a larger problem with the program or the housing department.

"That's why we have the audit process in place," Adamec said. "As chair of the Board of Estimates, the council president looks forward to the housing department's continued compliance, including periodic updates to the board, regarding the findings."

He said Rawlings-Blake is confident that Mayor Sheila Dixon will work to prevent future housing department problems.

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