A new federal audit of a City of Toledo home-repair program has little flattering to say about either the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, which was responsible for overseeing the program, or Toledo Municipal Court, which administered it. Although the court no longer operates the program, the city still could be liable for repaying more than $100,000 the audit says was spent questionably.
Any suggestion of misuse of public money is troubling. When the program at issue is intended to ensure decent housing for poor and middle-income families in the city, the alleged deficiencies are even more disturbing. The Bell administration’s assurance that “the policies, procedures, and controls deemed lacking” have been corrected at least demands independent verification.
The audit, conducted by the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), examined the operation of the city’s Code Violation Abatement Program from 2009 to 2012. The program provided grants of as much as $4,500 apiece to hire private contractors to help eligible homeowners bring their houses into compliance with the city housing code. The city paid for the program out of federal community development block grant funds.
Many of the audit findings mirror those of a Blade investigation of the program. The audit concludes that the city did not require Municipal Court to get independent cost estimates and adequate price quotes and project specifications for program work; for most of the projects reviewed in the audit, the court got only one price quote. The court, which created the program in 2001, ended operation of it last November.
Nor, the audit says, did city officials verify — by visits to the houses or conversations with their owners — that contractors actually did the work they agreed to do, that the prices they charged were reasonable, that they followed rules for dealing with lead-based paint, and that households enrolled in the program met rules for income eligibility. In cases cited in the audit, contractors painted over old and peeling house paint, failed to seal windows and chimneys properly, and used plywood for garage doors.
Municipal Court has obvious responsibilities in such areas as housing code enforcement, nuisance abatement, and landlord-tenant relations. In retrospect, though, the decision to assign the court such administrative duties as letting contracts, determining costs and details of construction services, calculating household incomes, and keeping program records seems questionable. The audit suggests that such a division of labor caused too much of the detail of program operation and oversight to fall between the city and the court.
The Bell administration says HUD’s Columbus office will tell the city what it needs to do now to respond to the audit’s findings. But city officials shouldn’t wait for those instructions. Despite the administration’s insistence that it already has taken steps to correct the problems the report identifies, it must resolve to do what else it needs to do to avoid the six-figure financial penalty.
The Neighborhoods Department has been a flash point of criticism throughout Mayor Mike Bell’s term, despite his efforts to clean house. How the department can work better on behalf of many of Toledo’s most vulnerable residents should become a key issue in this year’s city election campaigns.
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