Despite Record, 260 Seek County Housing Director Job

April 21, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Four executive directors have moved on in the last six years. The latest left after just 18 months. But despite the job's poor tenure record, 260 people want to head the county's troubled housing authority.

Applicants from across the nation are vying to oversee Anne Arundel's low-income housing projects. The deluge of applications has prompted housing officials to hire a contractor to sift through the resumes.

A search committee, chaired by a veteran county official, will screen candidates recommended by the contractor.

Walter Chitwood, who served as the authority's acting director two years ago and is assistant to County Executive Robert R. Neall, agreed to lead the screening committee.

Bill Tamborino, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Tara Clifford, a member of the agency's governing board, are the other two members.

Chitwood stepped in for five months in early 1989, on loan from county government, after then-executive director Vincent O. Leggett resigned. Leggett left the agency following reports of lavish spending and budget irregularities, including buying a four-wheel-drive vehicle laden with options, spending thousands on travel and installing a luxury suite at one of the senior housing projects.

By the time Leggett ended his two-year directorship to take a position with Anne Arundel Community College, the agency's reserve fund had fallen by almost a third. Chitwood, then responsible for managing the county's office buildings, took over in January 1989 and started cleaning house. He also served on the search committee that appointed June C. Waller to replace Leggett.

Waller, who arrived with hopes of turning the agency around but was asked to resign in January, said she wishes her replacement luck.

"I want to see someone come in, (even) with them (the board) interfering, and have that person turn that place around in a year," she said during a wide-ranging interview Thursday night from her home in Denver.

Waller said she came to Anne Arundel County driven by her desire to "make a difference" and help the low-income seniors and families in the seven projects.

She set to work repairing rundown units, helped reorganize tenant councils and insisted on stafftraining. But Waller said progress was slow because she had to buildfrom scratch.

"What came as a shock was that I had to start at zero," she recalled.

"There were no resident councils, no leaders. The drug dealers were stronger than the tenants."

She also complained that rebuilding the agency took more work than expected because board members kept pressing their own agendas. But board members have said the agency's high vacancy rates continued unchecked during Waller's directorship.

When Waller returned to Colorado in January, housing officials announced Project Vacancy, an ambitious plan to fill all the empty units. Stricter eviction policies and a focus on repairing existing units and maintenance problems had contributed to a 12 percent vacancy rate, four times higher than the HUD standard.

Waller said vacancies at Meade Village and Freetown continued because many families on the agency's waiting list refused to move there.

In the last four months, Project Vacancy has cut the rate to 5.4 percent. The agency's acting occupancy director has filled units as soon as the keys are turned over, officials reported at the board's monthly meeting Thursday night. Police foot patrols also moved back into MeadeVillage last week, housing officials said.

The authority now has only 60 vacant units, down 13 since last month, but not counting 12 apartments in a boarded-up building at Meade Village. Those units are scheduled to receive handicapped accesses. Six Stoney Hill apartmentsplagued by flooding have been closed by the county Health Department.

Board members also reviewed a draft plan seeking emergency HUD money for improvements next year. Housing and Urban Development hasn'tapproved any of the authority's requests for modernization money through the Comprehensive Improvement Assistance Program since 1985. ButHUD routinely grants "special purpose," or emergency CIAP money, to the county authority.

St. Lawrence declined to reveal how much CIAP money the agency is seeking while the plan is in draft form. One item budgeted is a "resident initiative coordinator," who would be paid$20,000 a year to motivate tenants to improve their communities.

Additional requests for HUD modernization money are on hold until theagency hires another CIAP coordinator. The last coordinator, Martin McCabe, was dismissed several weeks ago, the third employee to leave after Waller resigned.

The person selected to replace Waller will receive an annual salary between $47,000 and approximately $53,000. Housing officials would not disclose an exact salary or discuss selection criteria.

St. Lawrence said he hopes a director will be appointed four to six weeks after the selection committee recommends candidates.

But the search could take until midsummer, he noted.

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