Saving money while helping Mainers

By Bruce Poliquin, Special to the BDN
Posted June 01, 2012, at 2:26 p.m.

As state treasurer, and a commissioner of Maine State Housing Authority, I was relieved last week when the limited review by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found “no indications of fraud” in its narrow assessment of the 2007-11 MSHA expenditures for sponsorships, donations, memberships, conferences and travel/meal expenses.

Unfortunately, the OPEGA report clearly confirmed a pattern of wastefully spending taxpayer dollars at MSHA.

About $458,400 was spent on sponsorships and donations to 73 organizations, some of which “did not appear to have a direct or clear connection to Maine Housing’s mission.” About $115,000 was spent on conference registration, travel and meals for 62 employees attending 89 mostly out-of-state events, with “some conferences seemed only indirectly related to the [MSHA] mission.”

About $309,400 was spent on all-day team building events, diversity training, holiday-retirement-birthday celebrations and other professional development activities, with OPEGA questioning if some expenses were “necessary uses of Maine Housing funds.”

I reject the argument that such spending should be measured against the MSHA $14 million annual operating budget. Any amount of wastefully spending someone else’s money is just what it is — wasteful spending. This is Maine; every dollar counts. Plus, the money doesn’t belong to government. It belongs to the Maine taxpayers, and they work darn hard for it.

Beyond the demonstrated pattern of wasteful spending at MSHA, there’s an important question not asked in the OPEGA report: Did MSHA lose its focus to help as many of Maine’s most vulnerable families as possible with their critical housing needs?

The public debate over the past six months about the cost and availability of affordable housing in Maine has revealed two stunning facts. First, some 1,100-square-foot apartments have cost taxpayers up to $292,000 each. Second, there are roughly 6,500 disadvantaged Maine families on waiting lists to move into subsidized units. Another 800 fellow Mainers sleep in homeless shelters on any given night.

The new MSHA board is acutely aware of this growing problem and is addressing it. The board has been working quickly and diligently with the staff to rewrite the building standards to drive down the cost to construct low-income housing in Maine.

Expensive solar hot water heaters are no longer required. Costly and unnecessary green building standards have been eliminated. Extra consideration is given for projects located within roughly one-quarter mile of a bus stop, instead of more expensive in-town locations.

Bonus points are awarded to projects that include financial incentives to reduce the cost to build the low-income apartments, so more can be built. Cost over-runs are no longer regularly approved. We expect the effect of these changes to be lasting: help more at-risk Maine families while treating the taxpayers fairly.

The new board is closely examining MSHA’s speculative carbon-trading scheme developed over the past few years, which hopes to generate funds to weatherize Maine homes. Is more than a million dollars spent on computer systems and carbon consultants worth the cost and distraction?

The board is working with the staff to correct the horrid living conditions discovered at many Section 8 apartments across the state. MSHA has known about these problems for roughly four years. Section 8 units are subsidized by taxpayer dollars. MSHA is paid by the federal government to ensure that our most vulnerable families have safe and livable Section 8 apartments to call home. The authority failed miserably in this responsibility.

The work at MSHA is important and serious business. The authority is often the last buffer between our most vulnerable families and homelessness. The new board is being truthful about the authority’s problems and is helping to fix them.

Thank goodness the narrow OPEGA review showed no illegal activity. It did, however, confirm wasteful spending of limited taxpayer dollars. And, sadly, MSHA itself has shown how needy Maine families can be overlooked when an organ of state government takes its eye off the ball.

Bruce Poliquin is the state treasurer of Maine and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/06/01/opinion/saving-money-while-helping-mainers/ printed on September 20, 2014