The report details poor oversight and mismanagement, as well as allegations of bid rigging, contract steering, and possible misuse of federal funds for home repairs. City law director Adam Loukx and Dan Hiskey, special projects director, put together the 19-page report. The pair has emphasized the purpose of the report is to fix problems, not gather evidence or make judgments about possible criminal action—a function they left for law enforcement to pursue.
Council member Paula Hicks-Hudson stated the report highlighted two major problems: poor oversight and a lack of training in fiscal and program management.
“There was a significant failure in managerial oversight and the mayor has addressed that issue,” agreed Ms. Santiago. “Going forward, there will be many steps taken within the department in addition to those recommendations stated in the report. You have recognized the need for this department to focus on its core mission, which is what it will be doing going forward, which is housing and neighborhood development.”
But Ms. Santiago also emphasized the department will place a strong emphasis on “fiscal monitoring of the dollars coming into” the community. She invited city council to require a monthly briefing on what progress the department is making to meet the recommendations for improvement laid out in the report.
“The department will be run in such a manner that it will be very transparent and accountable, the things that we do,” said Ms. Santiago.
She cited ongoing training for rehab technicians, as well as technology enhancement to ensure better record-keeping. But the biggest—and most immediate—changes involve bidding procedures for projects above $10,000, which will be placed on the city’s website “to make them apparent and accessible to anyone qualified,” Ms. Santiago noted.
The new neighborhoods director stated she streamlined the bidding process and implemented best practices to ensure anyone who wants to do a project “is knowledgeable and qualified.”
“I just want to reassure that very aggressive steps have been taken and will continue to be taken to make sure this department stays on target and stays within its core mission for the betterment of this community,” she concluded. “I will make sure the dollars that come into our community are properly spent, not just spent within the regulatory confines.”
Council members praised Ms. Santiago for assuming leadership of the department at such a critical time, citing the attorney’s work ethic, strong ethics, and integrity.
Three bid estimates will be required for any housing rehab work, but “best bid” criteria will be followed to ensure that adequate work is done on any given project. However, existing city procurement policy will be followed for any rehab work that falls under the $10,000 threshold.
Councilman George Sarantou questioned whether there would be “equal opportunity” for contractors to secure work with the city.
“All of the bids will receive managerial oversight no matter what the dollar amount,” responded Ms. Santiago. “I will oversee everything going on in that department.”
She emphasized the best bid criteria will be objective to ensure that there will be documentation as to why a contractor is or is not selected for a project. Factors, including a contractor’s past performance on a project will be considered. Shoddy work will hamper future contract awards. Contractors and vendors are being notified of the changes via email.
Councilman Adam Martínez, who chairs the neighborhoods committee, questioned whether the department is prepared for an upcoming HUD audit. There is more than $300,000 in costs questioned by federal inspectors who reviewed spending of grant dollars. Poor paperwork led to significant work to address those questioned costs by Ms. Santiago and Hiskey to the satisfaction of auditors, who required a corrective plan of action.
The report concluded that neighborhoods department employees favored some contractors over others, a “probability” existed that a contractor was improperly given access to a competitor’s bids, and documents were falsified.
Loukx and Hiskey stated they could not draw conclusions on some allegations because of poor record-keeping and conflicting statements given by some of the 30-plus people interviewed.
“In most cases, there is insufficient proof as to who acted improperly and, in the case of conflicting stories, which version is more truthful,” the report stated.
In addition, more than 30 pieces of equipment have turned up missing in the departments Neighborhood Beautification Action (NBA) program, including a forklift, a chainsaw, and other landscaping gear. Most of that equipment is stored in a warehouse and locked bins at a facility on Lagrange St. Because the program uses mainly seasonal employees, investigators recommended not hiring anyone without a criminal background check.
Lastly, Ms. Santiago welcomed one of the department’s new employees, Milva Wagner, which La Prensa will feature in the near future.