May 27, 2018
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MSHA should focus on creating affordable housing, not defending status quo

By Jon Courtney, Special to the BDN

Throughout Maine there is a serious need for more affordable housing.
There are 6,500 Mainers on the Maine State Housing Authority waiting list for affordable housing. With federal, state and local governments facing ongoing shortfalls and hard-working families struggling to stay above water, taxpayers have every right to demand that we get the most out of every dollar that government takes from us.

We must identify and eliminate waste wherever we can find it, even if it means asking difficult questions. That is why recent efforts by MSHA Director Dale McCormick to defend the status quo are deeply troubling.

Accounts of Director McCormick’s response to mounting criticism from Maine State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and MSHA Board Chairman Peter Anastos over MSHA expenditures concerns me on a couple of different levels.

First, Treasurer Poliquin and Chairman Anastos have raised serious questions regarding the per-unit costs of MSHA projects. Citing the Elm Terrace affordable housing project in Portland, Treasurer Poliquin has questioned how Maine taxpayers can be expected to pay close to $300,000 for 1,100-square-foot apartments when the average price of a single family, 2,000-square-foot Maine home is $159,000.

Why should struggling taxpayers be asked to pay for housing that they couldn’t afford to live in themselves? There are too many people who are currently stretched to the limit trying to hold onto their $159,000 home while paying taxes to help provide housing for others.

MSHA Director McCormick and her allies have vehemently disputed that MSHA project costs are too high and have countered that no affordable housing project has ever been built in Maine at a cost of more than $300,000 a unit. The treasurer points out that the per-unit costs for Gilman Place in Waterville were $292,000. Contrast this with single family home prices in Waterville. The treasurer’s concerns that lack of fiscal oversight may be contributing to unreasonably high per-unit housing costs should not be so summarily dismissed.

Second, the defenders of the status quo at MSHA are characterizing efforts to obtain answers as an overblown partisan witch hunt. They are seeking to change the subject from one of “policy” to a discussion of “motives” and “personalities.” I hope that legislators who have not yet learned all the facts will avoid some of the initial responses that followed when we raised questions about the Maine Turnpike Authority and its former executive director, Paul Violette (now the subject of a criminal investigation).

You may recall that when Republicans started raising questions about Maine Turnpike Authority spending, defenders of the status quo were quick to question our motives before our inquiry was completed. We pushed forward in a fair, thorough fashion focused on facts, not the people involved.

That investigation ultimately uncovered thousands of dollars of misspent funds. If we had chosen not to pursue an MTA inquiry, money would still be wasted on questionable, if not illegal, activities.

No one is asserting that Director McCormick has done anything illegal.
However, it appears terribly difficult to defend the excessive MSHA costs that are being funded with taxpayer dollars.

I am pleased that the Government Oversight Committee voted to direct the nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability to review MSHA in 2012. We need an objective look at whether or not MSHA can do better creating more housing for people on the waiting list and reducing costs.

I believe the Legislature needs answers to several important questions, including:

  1. Who is the MSHA director accountable to?
  2. Who provides the fiscal oversight?
  3. Is the process effective and transparent?
  4. Can we make the process better to ensure that scarce public resources can serve more people?
  5. Is the process competitive and open to all developers?

Rather than call into question the motives of those who are seeking to improve the efficiency of the Maine State Housing Authority, we should focus on effectively measuring whether our tax dollars can be stretched further to help people on the waiting list for affordable housing. We can’t change the past, but through education and transparency we can improve future practices.

Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, represents District 3 in the Maine Senate. He is the Senate Majority Leader and chairs the Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform.

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