IHA locks in on lower public safety budget

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – At a time when crime is up by double digit margins in some of its largest properties, the Indianapolis Housing Agency, the entity responsible for providing places to live for 22,000 low-income Marion County residents, appears to be cutting its public safety budget.

A pair of budget-setting meetings this month by IHA and its non-profit operating arm, Insight Development Corp., pegged 2019’s protective services spending at $589,014, compared to this year’s $610,992.

Those figures include IHA’s own police force and the hiring of off-duty officers to patrol both agency and insight properties.

“So what got approved today was part of the public safety budget that includes both the employees at IHA and the off-duty that will be working at Insight’s properties,” said IHA Interim Executive Director Jennifer Green. “So, we approved another $92,000 to whatever was approved by IHA last week.

“Its about $350,000 to be used for off-duty police officers.”

A change in IHA and Insight budgeting processes make year-to-year comparisons difficult as some properties are patrolled with funds paid out of the agency’s budget while others fall under the authority the non-profit Insight Development Corporation.

2018 crime has climbed 10 through 63% at IHA’s largest properties, even while crime reports declined 10% across Indianapolis in 2017.

Green has been engaged in talks with her staff and IMPD Chief Bryan Roach on how to foster better communications between residents, staff, IHA police and off-duty officers with IMPD in an attempt to bring down the escalating crime rate.

“We need it to be before the first of the year because we want to get any contracts we need to do in place with our off-duty before the end of the year,” said Green who added the key is, “making sure our residents know who they are. Making sure our residents have confidence in going to them for different things.”

Adding to the challenge of determining the IHA protective services budget was an unsuccessful attempt by the housing agency to block FOX59’s attendance at the Insight board meeting.

On Monday, an IHA-contracted spokesperson denied our intention to attend the meeting claiming she was informed, “the meeting is not public.”

An appeal to Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, citing Insight’s 2016 federal tax returns as well as a State Board of Accounts audit of Insight’s 2017 finances, resulted in a finding that, “It appears…that they are a public agency whose governing body (IHA) is public,” and that Insight is, “a government entity/state actor as well.”

Insight’s practice of holding closed meetings without published agendas, meeting minutes or executive session intentions articulated would appear to be in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Before the meeting our presence was questioned by Board Chairman Rod Morgan who seemed unaware that public safety spending would be part of the board’s upcoming deliberations and, “We’re not answering any of your questions….I’m the chairman. I can determine what’s on the agenda and what gets addressed and I don’t think that’s going to be one of the topics.”

Minutes later Green led a board discussion on $92,000 in proposed spending for protective services at five of Insight’s properties.

The budget passed on a voice vote. Two members attended the meeting via conference call and cast votes which, according to the Public Access Counselor, would be in violation of Indiana’s Open Meetings Act which requires board members to be physically present in order to cast ballots.

Green also reported that several Insight properties are failing to match occupancy levels essential to IHA meeting its 2019 budget goals.

While IHA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will provide the bulk of the agency’s $77 million operating budget next year, expects 97% occupancy rates in public housing properties, Green said a number of properties have fallen below 90%.

One reportedly failed a private tax credit investor’s inspection and another, 16 Park, had an unsatisfactory management and occupancy review from an outside auditor while non-emergency work orders remain outstanding an average of 35 days, weeks beyond accepted public housing guidelines.

Green blamed work order delays and lengthy unit turnovers for new residents on the departure of 16 IHA maintenance employees this year.

She also said that while Insight had undertaken a staff and management retreat last year to set a 2018 strategic plan, that report was never completed.

Also not completed was an agreement between Kountry Kitchen and Insight for acceptance of a $400,000 federal grant to expand the restaurant and hire up to 16 employees to boost the operations catering services.

The grant award was approved last summer, a month after Kountry Kitchen’s owner, Cynthia Wright Wilson, resigned her seat on the Insight board.

Board member Michael Allen asked about progress on the restaurant’s acceptance of the grant and when he was advised that the owner of the north side restaurant still had not signed the contract, Allen raised the question of whether Insight should back out of the deal.

“We can’t wait around forever to use these funds,” said Allen.

“We can’t go back and change the documents, can we?” asked Chairman Morgan, an attorney.

Insight staff indicated it would contact Wright Wilson to facilitate the contract process.

Mayor Joe Hogsett has set in motion a nationwide search to find IHA’s next executive director after longtime leader Rufus “Bud” Myers abruptly resigned in late August. The departure was reportedly marked by document shredding, a scathing State Board of Accounts review and the anticipated presence of federal investigators inquiring about agency operations and finances.

Hogsett has called for, “a new leadership team” at IHA.

The mayor has attempted to blunt an IHA effort to strip him of the ability to name two new members to the agency board this year.

Proposal 197 before the City-County Council would have extended the service of two mayoral appointees to the board until the end of 2019, thus subverting Hogsett’s efforts to introduce fresh voices to the governing body in anticipation of the new executive director.

The proposal is being reworked and now calls for the dismissal of all nine current board members by the end of February with new names to be submitted by the mayor, the council and residents.

That proposal will be heard by a council committee in mid-December.

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