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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A joint housing agency?

As published in the Record Journal, Friday December 23, 2011

It could be done - Both Wallingford and Meriden have questions, though

By Mary Ellen Godin

Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2255

The Wallingford Housing Authority can’t afford to pass up a recent offer of help from its counterpart agency in Meriden, according to Wallingford Town Councilor Nick Economopoulos.
“I consider it a nice gesture,” Economopoulos, a Democrat, said Thursday. “I think our commissioners are confused right now. I don’t think they should be hiring a new director or an outside management company. When you are under the pressure they are under, it’s a recipe for failure” The WHA is operating without an executive director, and its deputy director is also leaving. The authority has been plagued in the last year with management issues, tenant complaints, partisan bickering and the turnover of four of its five commissioners.

Meriden Housing Authority Director Robert Cappelletti extended a hand to WHA board members and town officials several weeks ago through a letter offering to help the authority get through the many changes. Cappelletti suggested a partnership between the two agencies.

“We should invite him to our next meeting,” WHA board member Thomas Mezzei said Thursday. “It’s a courtesy to talk to him.”
Both housing authorities are overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development but generally accept some input from local officials. According to HUD officials, collaboration between authorities is permitted.

“We do allow it,” said Julie Fagan, director of the HUD field office that oversees the housing authorities. “As long as they ensure they have the staff and resources to meet the needs of tenants.”

Fagan said any arrangement would have to be approved by the local boards of commissioners but would not need
HUD approval.

Craig Fishbein, a Republican town councilor in Wallingford, said he would leave the decision whether to accept Cappelletti’s offer to the WHA board members. But he would question the structure of any potential partnership and the level of commitment from Meriden, he said.

“I was a little surprised that the executive director of Meriden (Housing Authority) would have the time,” Fishbein said. “But I’ll leave it to the commission’s expertise.”

Meriden City Councilor Hilda Santiago is the council’s liaison to the Housing Authority. She also questioned the amount of time Cappelletti could devote to Wallingford, given the many projects on his plate in Meriden. “I feel there is a lot of projects he’s working on in Meriden that are worthy of his time,” said Santiago, a Democrat.

The MHA was given a failing grade for its physical inspections at federal housing projects earlier this month. Cappelletti is under a deadline to appeal some of the points made in the evaluation and return the appeal to HUD. It was also cited two years ago for faulty financial reports under a prior administration and is correcting deficiencies.

Economopoulos said he had heard Cappelletti had a “top shelf” reputation, but any potential blemishes would need to be reviewed by the WHA prior to making a decision to work together.

Under Cappelletti , work has progressed on the nearly $27 million redevelopment of Chamberlain Heights after more than six years of talking, failed applications and delays. About $1.4 million has been put into renovations of Mills Memorial Apartments and just short of $1 million into Yale Acres. The authority has also teamed with the city to apply for a grant to study redevelopment of Mills, and plans for a veterans’ housing project on Hanover Street are progressing.

Without knowing specifics, Meriden City Council Majority Leader Brian Daniels said Cappelletti’s offer is an example of municipalities collaborating to share resources and solve problems. He points to the city’s challenge several months ago when its health director abruptly left her post and Southington’s health director, Charles Motes, filled in for the interim.

“Communities help each other out,” said Daniels, a Democrat. “That’s what they do. But I know nothing about the arrangement or if it’s apples to apples or apples to oranges.”

Santiago said the difference between the two scenarios is that city Development and Enforcement Director Dominick Caruso was placed in charge of the Health Department and Motes signed off on necessary paperwork.

She believes the vacancies at WHA would put more responsibility on Cappelletti.

Economopoulos said he’s impressed that the MHA handles its own Section 8 program in house and wants the WHA to do the same. The Wallingford authority outsources its Section 8 program to the Hamden Housing Authority and he’d like to see it get more training in finance.

Whether the WHA accepts Cappelletti’s offer or not, Economopoulos said he thinks it’s a mistake for the board to make any rash decisions on hiring a new director or outsourcing the operation. Instead, it should hire an interim director and study its options.

“Right now, all we can think about is getting our ship ruddered straight,” Economopoulos said.