City Council 'outraged' by $52 million surprise Hearn's ouster sought by some

February 06, 1993|By Sandy Banisky and Joan Jacobson | Sandy Banisky and Joan Jacobson,Staff Writers

Some Baltimore City Council members, shocked to learn the housing department hasn't spent $52 million in funds for the poor, called yesterday for an investigation and said the housing commissioner must shape up or step down.

"I'm getting real sick reading these figures," said 6th District Councilman Melvin Stukes. "I'm so angry I'm not sure what my reaction is, besides wanting to put on some boxing gloves and going upside someone's head."

He and other council members were reacting to reports in yesterday's editions of The Sun that the Department of Housing and Community Development has failed to spend $52 million from two federal programs that could be used to renovate vacant houses, and fund anti-poverty programs. Some of the money dates back more than a year.

"I'm flabbergasted," said 4th District Councilman Lawrence Bell.

"It's beyond belief," said Councilman Anthony Ambridge, of the 3rd District.

Robert W. Hearn, the embattled commissioner of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, said through a spokesman he had no comment on the council criticism.

At a press conference yesterday, he again defended his agency's failure to spend the federal money, repeatedly blaming a "gauntlet of regulations" from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that have made it difficult to use the funds.

He blamed the past two Republican administrations for restricting housing funds.

"It has nothing to do with my ability to manage. I'm trying to put it in the proper context. We haven't had the money and the situation is different than the 1970s."

But council members don't buy his argument.

"Unless he's willing to make some dramatic changes in his administration, he should consider stepping aside," said Mr. Ambridge.

"I'm outraged," said Mr. Bell. "I think about the old Sam Cooke song, 'Change is gonna come.' We need a full and public investigation of this. I'm withholding judgment until the officials can answer these charges. But the people in my district are suffering the most. Proposals from community groups have been stalled. If this is true, then many of us have been hoodwinked, and something dramatic must be done."

Third District Councilman Wilbur E. Cunningham, echoing other council members, called Mr. Hearn, "one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. But we have such an accumulation of problems in housing that I think it's time to re-evaluate the leadership of that agency, meaning Dr. Hearn. The job is not getting done, and we need someone in charge who's innovative."

Again and again, council members and other observers said that Mr. Hearn has presided over the decline of an agency that for years was the pride of city government.

"It seems the whole system has failed," Mr. Ambridge said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development had a national reputation for efficiency and creativity.

But morale began to fall soon after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke named Dr. Hearn, an academic, to run the agency.

Many of the most experienced employees quit to take jobs in the state government or with private agencies.

"There was a brain drain," Mr. Ambridge said. "There was such an exodus.

"There was an overt effort to rid the place of anyone who worked for [former Mayor William Donald] Schaefer. They reclassified jobs. They eliminated jobs. They just told them to leave."

"The new people just don't have the experience and the wherewithal to deal with the complexities of the federal government," Mr. Ambridge added.

Mr. Hearn is "trying hard. But he has an inability to keep or surround himself with competent people, people who are competent in the ways or means of government," the councilman said.

Council members said they received calls yesterday from developers and community leaders looking for answers on how to free up the funds -- which are available to the city in a line of credit.

Second District Councilman Carl Stokes said, "A couple of people in East Baltimore said, 'We have projects ready to go. Can you help us get block grant money?' I said, 'Did you read the paper? We got a couple of dollars.' "

Mr. Ambridge said several 2nd District projects have been in planning for years but stalled for lack of funds.

"We have been shut down every step of the way: 'We just don't have money. We just don't have money.' "

And Mr. Stukes said, "Our housing is deteriorating and we're sitting on this kind of money? If this money has just been set on just because of the inability to move on it, I'm sure there will be some serious consideration to changing management styles."

Mr. Stukes said he'd like to look at the federal guidelines, to see if the regulations are indeed too restrictive. "If that's so, we have to untie some of these strings. We have to see if other cities are having trouble spending this money."

Mr. Hearn said budget cuts had shrunk his department -- from 540 to 391 employees -- since he took the job of housing commissioner in 1988.

He said his smaller staff has made it difficult to run federally financed programs.

The city's battles with HUD over previously spent federal funds prompted the city last year to hire a Washington lawyer whose specialty is fighting HUD.

To date, the city has paid Otto J. Hetzel $375,000, using its federal block grant money to pay the legal fees, said deputy commissioner Harold Perry.

A HUD spokesman said "it's probably legal" to use the money to pay lawyer's fees.

Mr. Hearn said the city plans to use the unspent money on a number of neighborhood projects, including renovating vacant houses throughout the city.

The commissioner said he hopes the new HUD secretary, Henry G. Cisneros, will be able to untangle the red tape so money can be spent on neighborhood revitalization projects.

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