, Newburyport, MA

January 31, 2013

Port's housing authority opposing governor's consolidation plan


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Officials of the Newburyport Housing Authority are opposing a plan by Gov. Deval Patrick that would eliminate about 240 local housing authorities.

The NHA has not been targeted specifically, but Patrick’s plan to meld local authorities with six regional agencies suggests that significant personnel changes could take place if the new system is approved. The NHA employs seven on a full-time basis, and is overseen by a five-member board of directors.

“The needs of our residents will be much better served by keeping the ownership and responsibility for managing our apartments locally instead of turning it over to a much larger, regional bureaucracy,” said Mary Louise Gagnon, chairwoman of the NHA, in a statement.

“Local housing authorities are best managed by locally appointed boards who know the needs of the community.”

The NHA supervises 100 units at the Sullivan Building, 50 at Horton Terrace and 42 at Kelleher Park. It also supervises about 104 “voucher” clients, who find housing on their own and get locally supervised financial assistance. About 169 units are subsidized by the state.

“The state is talking about taking over everything, state and federal,” said Christine Cashman, executive director of the NHA.

The city does not provide financial support for public-housing complexes here, according to City Auditor Bill Squillace.

There are 80,000 public housing units for low-income and elderly residents in Massachusetts, about 50,000 of which are funded by the state.

News reports indicate some housing authorities have been plagued by corruption, including the revelation that the Chelsea housing authority chief was paid $360,000 annually and was hiding most of his pay.

Patrick’s bill proposes to tighten the management and efficiency of housing authorities, and to improve transparency. He would also set a maximum salary for executive directors. It would cap annual salary increases at a level with municipal employees.

And it would require housing authorities to provide state officials with a list of its five highest wage earners. Cashman earns about $70,000 a year, she said.

State Rep. Mike Costello, D-Newburyport, said he is not in favor of the changes proposed by Patrick.

“I am willing to listen but right now I am not supportive,” said Costello, who said that he worked in a subsidized housing complex in Salisbury when he was in law school. “There are many local needs, with clients having different issues that need to be addressed.”

Costello added that he is concerned that the interests of large complexes in communities like Lynn, Lowell and Haverhill might monopolize a regional agency to the detriment of smaller operations like those in this community.

NHA officials say they support reform legislation introduced by the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials that would maintain local housing authorities, but “streamline the delivery of housing services to low-income families and senior citizens through a targeted approach based on shared collaborative functions among local housing authorities.”

Management operations would be consolidated for at least 50 authorities to meet the needs of the small authorities but local control would be retained, this reform proposal states.