Garrett Mason: Objective review of MSHA is important

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Recently, storm clouds have been gathering over the Maine State Housing Authority and its director.

The stated mission of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is to “ensure that public funds are expended in the most effective, efficient and economical manner possible.” The committee is evenly split between Republicans (six) and Democrats (six), and accomplishes its mission by directing the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability to conduct independent evaluations and investigations of state agencies and programs, including other entities that receive or expend public funds.

Some current and planned activities of OPEGA include a review of child development services, the cost per prisoner in the Department of Corrections, and the Office of Information Technology. All of these reviews are being done to help ensure that programs in these areas are being run in an efficient and cost-effective manner while serving their intended purposes.

In addition to helping ensure that the public’s tax dollars are spent wisely, this nonpartisan, independent legislative office has played a key role in recent efforts to uncover fraud, waste, questionable spending and other types of wrongdoing. OPEGA’s efforts were crucial to uncovering the Maine Turnpike Authority scandal and sending its former executive director to jail.

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Recently, storm clouds have been gathering over the Maine State Housing Authority and its director. Newly appointed MSHA board members, the press and citizen watchdog groups have raised troubling questions regarding exorbitant expenditures of taxpayer money. These include: one- and two-bedroom efficiency units deemed “affordable” with a price tag from $250,000 on up per unit; payroll costs for both “administration” and “asset management” that have increased by approximately 60 percent during the past six years; non-performance-based bonuses of $1,000 given in 2010 to employees (state employees received 10 unpaid furlough days); and a project approval process that does not consider the expense of projects as part of its funding criteria.

There have also been high-profile problems surrounding the inspection of Section 8 housing units in Norway. These problems came to light because of the Advertiser-Democrat’s report on deplorable living conditions. That prompted U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to request a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

MSHA plays a crucial role in addressing affordable housing and economic development in Maine. It has nearly $2 billion in assets and serves close to 90,000 Mainers. It has a list of 6,500 people waiting for affordable housing, making spending decisions even more important. The troubling questions that have been raised need to be addressed quickly, objectively and convincingly to prevent further damage to MSHA’s reputation.

I am pleased that our committee recently voted to consider part of our MSHA review ahead of schedule. OPEGA will review “MSHA expenditures for sponsorships, donations, memberships and contributions as well as any travel and meal, or other expenses, where the nature of the vendor or the amount of the expense raises questions as to reasonableness or necessity in relation to MSHA’s mission and programs.” A broader review of MSHA by OPEGA will occur later in the year.

I hope that the situation at the MSHA doesn’t rise to the level of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Former MTA Executive Director Paul Violette recently pleaded guilty to felony theft, agreed to repay the Turnpike Authority and will serve time in jail for his crimes.

I mention the MTA because the reaction to the questions raised regarding MSHA is eerily similar to the reaction from some when the new Legislature and OPEGA began its investigation of the MTA. High-ranking Democrats insisted that the MTA was well-run; there were no identified problems, and no need to investigate. They characterized attempts to review the quasi-governmental agency as a partisan witch hunt. In the face of similar arguments regarding the MSHA, it is important that we conduct the same type of objective inquiry into this matter that we did with the Maine Turnpike Authority.

We need to calmly learn all of the facts regarding the questions posed to MSHA and its director before jumping to conclusions. As a new member of the Government Oversight Committee, I welcome that challenge and pledge to do just that.

Garrett Mason is a Republican state senator who represents the communities of Lisbon, Sabattus, Wales, Greene, Leeds, Turner, Livermore, Livermore Falls, Minot, and Mechanic Falls. Mason chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, serves on the Education Committee, and was recently appointed to the Government Oversight Committee by Senate President Kevin Raye.

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