HRA under microscopeWashington County commissioners want an in-depth discussion with the county Housing and Redevelopment Authority about its mission and work in the future.
By: Scott Wente, Woodbury Bulletin
Washington County commissioners want an in-depth discussion with the county Housing and Redevelopment Authority about its mission and work in the future.
The county board request came after HRA officials outlined the agency’s 2010 budget, including $3.3 million in proposed county property tax revenue.
That levy – and a tight county budget – has prompted Commissioners Lisa Weik of Woodbury and Bill Pulkrabek of Oakdale to suggest that the county consider cutting off property tax funding to the housing agency. County tax revenue makes up one-fifth of the HRA’s annual budget.
Weik said she is not making a “hasty” proposal, but wonders whether the HRA’s services should be a county responsibility. Maybe cities should take on affordable housing work, she suggested.
HRA Executive Director Barbara Dacy gave the County Board an overview of the agency’s operations and finances on Oct. 27, as county departments have in recent weeks. The HRA is not a county department, but its commissioners are appointed by the County Board, which also votes on the HRA levy.
The HRA owns and manages affordable housing units, provides mortgage foreclosure prevention programs and other housing assistance. It is involved in economic development initiatives and works with developers to create affordable housing units in some residential construction projects.
The HRA’s mission is limited by state law, but it has expanded the services provided within that mission, Dacy said. That includes a new foreclosure prevention program and additional rental assistance.
Commissioners said they are pleased with the HRA’s management and that the agency has improved under Dacy’s leadership. Some, though, have raised questions about the potential for overlap with city housing agencies, such as Woodbury’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and problems with developers working on HRA-related properties.
Dacy said she is prepared to provide more information about HRA-owned properties, how rent rates are determined and what role the county levy plays in the HRA budget.
“I think these are very difficult economic times and it’s always productive for government on a regular basis to continually evaluate the public purpose and effectiveness of programs that are supported by property taxes,” Dacy said.
Could cities take over?
Much of the HRA debate centers on whether its work could – or should – be carried out at the city level.
Three Washington County cities operate their own Housing and Redevelopment Authority – Woodbury, Oakdale and Forest Lake – and seven have an Economic Development Authority.
Two cities, Stillwater and Oak Park Heights, adopted ordinances to designate the county HRA to operate on their behalf for housing and redevelopment needs, Dacy said.
That makes financial sense, Dacy said. The county HRA provides services that transcend city boundaries; it is more economically efficient to have the county handle rent administration than for individual cities to carry out that duty; and the county can provide an “economy of scale” wherein revenues from one housing unit can help with the expenses of another.
Dacy said she is not aware of any Washington County city evaluating whether it should take on more HRA-type work.
Woodbury is advocating maintaining the Washington County HRA. In a letter to county commissioners last month, Mayor Bill Hargis said the county agency is an “important partner” of the city and provides services in a variety of needed areas.
While Woodbury has its own Housing and Redevelopment Authority, its scope is much narrower than the county agency’s, said Karl Batalden, city housing specialist. Plus, it is in its infancy, having been created just three years ago.
“The process was explicitly undertaken so that we would be complementary to and non-duplicative of the Washington County HRA,” he said.
Weik applauded that.
“It’s a great answer that there’s no duplication of services,” she said. “But moving forward, is this something that could be better handled, or is there more transparency, if housing needs were handled by municipalities such as cities?”
The county should use computer software to analyze what would happen if it withdrew property tax funding from the HRA, Weik said.
Commissioners Myra Peterson of Cottage Grove and Gary Kriesel, whose district includes Afton, said there is a need to provide affordable housing in the county and that there is a purpose for the HRA.
At least one member of the HRA’s own oversight board believes the agency should tighten its focus. Marisa Novak of Woodbury, who represents the county’s second district on the board, said she would prefer that the HRA stay closer to its housing mission and steer away from economic development work.
But Novak said she has not decided whether to support an effort to dissolve the HRA.