Housing authority under microscopeWashington County commissioners want an in-depth discussion with the county Housing and Redevelopment Authority about its mission and work in the future.
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
Washington County commissioners want an in-depth discussion with the county Housing and Redevelopment Authority about its mission and work in the future.
The County Board request came after authority officials outlined the agency’s 2010 budget, including $3.3 million in proposed county property tax revenue.
That levy — and a tight county budget — has prompted Commissioners Lisa Weik of Woodbury and Bill Pulkrabek of Oakdale to suggest that the county consider cutting off property tax funding to the housing agency. County tax revenue makes up one-fifth of the authority’s annual budget.
Weik said she is not making a “hasty” proposal, but wonders whether the housing authority’s services should be a county responsibility. Maybe cities should take on affordable housing work, she suggested.
Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Barbara Dacy gave the County Board an overview of the agency’s operations and finances on Oct. 27, like county departments have in recent weeks. The authority is not a county department, but its commissioners are appointed by the county board, which also votes on its levy.
The housing authority owns and manages affordable housing units, provides mortgage foreclosure prevention programs and other housing assistance. It is involved in economic development initiatives and works with developers to create affordable housing units in some residential construction projects.
The housing authority’s mission is limited by state law, but it has expanded the services provided within that mission, Dacy said. That includes a new foreclosure prevention program and additional rental assistance.
Commissioners said they are pleased with the authority’s management and that the agency has improved under Dacy’s leadership. Some, though, have raised questions about the potential for overlap with city housing agencies, such as Woodbury’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and problems with developers working on housing authority-related properties.
Dacy said she is prepared to provide more information about authority-owned properties, how rent rates are determined and what role the county levy plays in the authority’s budget.
“I think these are very difficult economic times and it’s always productive for government on a regular basis to continually evaluate the public purpose and effectiveness of programs that are supported by property taxes,” Dacy said.
Could cities take over?
Much of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority debate centers on whether its work could — or should — be carried out at the city level.
Three Washington County cities operate their own Housing and Redevelopment Authority — Woodbury, Oakdale and Forest Lake — and seven have an Economic Development Authority.
Two cities, Stillwater and Oak Park Heights, adopted ordinances to designate the county authority to operate on their behalf for housing and redevelopment needs, Dacy said.
That makes financial sense, Dacy said. The county housing authority provides services that transcend city boundaries; it is more economically efficient to have the county handle rent administration than for individual cities to carry out that duty; and the county can provide an “economy of scale” wherein revenues from one housing unit can help with the expenses of another.
Dacy said she is not aware of any Washington County city evaluating whether it should take on more housing authority-type work.
The county should use computer software to analyze what would happen if it withdrew property tax funding from the authority, Weik said.
Commissioners Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove and Gary Kriesel, whose district includes Afton, said there is a need to provide affordable housing in the county and that there is a purpose for the agency.
At least one member of the housing authority’s own oversight board believes the agency should tighten its focus. Marisa Novak of Woodbury, who represents the county’s 2nd District on the board, said she would prefer that the authority stay closer to its housing mission and steer away from economic development work.
But Novak she has not decided whether to support an effort to dissolve the Housing and Redevelopment Authority.