Federal aid turned off because county didn't know – as usual
By Michael Lewis
Because county commissioners kept diverting funds to banned uses and no county workers cried foul, hundreds of neighborhood programs will go hungry in 2007.
Good going, commissioners. Way to spend, administrators. You're playing the county hall game: commissioners err and everyone looks the other way.
As we report this week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development must be repaid $12 million that the county misspent over three years. The county will get the money by turning off federal funds that have been flowing to the neighborhood programs.
Nobody will talk for the record, but what's happening occurs over and over at county hall. Commissioners want money for a pet program, twist officials' arms and get it Ð whether from proper sources or not.
Commissioners aren't allowed to direct employees other than their own staffs to do anything. That's the manager's job. But county workers are too fearful or uncaring to speak up when commissioners ignore the rules.
In this case, commissioners wanted to spend a far larger percentage of the federal funds on pet programs than the law allows, and nobody told either them or administrators that spending was already over the top.
Similar games at the airport ended when the federal government made the county repay illegal spending. They were played also at the seaport, where former director Carmen Lunetta was happy to placate commissioners with pocket money while otherwise spending as he pleased.
Who knows where else it's happening?
That's the point: who knows if nobody blows a whistle? Where is the vital culture of close oversight on departments and courage to speak out? It starts at the top.
The county didn't know that an employee was pulling $1 million out of taxpayers' money for postage and keeping it.
The same county department didn't know that it had more than 4,000 cell phones on and operating for only 500 authorized users, with the county paying the bill.
The county didn't know it was spending millions and millions on affordable housing that was never built.
Every time one of these nobody-knew disasters surfaces, administration takes credit for rooting out waste and corruption. Goody.
But you have to wonder how much credit to give for belatedly discovering something top officials should have known all along, because somebody down the line should have said something.
Of course, it's a big county, as County Manager George Burgess says when problems with lack of oversight are raised. How could he know about everything?
He can't Ð unless someone tells him. And somebody who works for him should have known about each one of these who-knows blunders – and other who-knows disasters that will someday surface, too late. That's what management and chain of command are all about, making sure that the boss knows what the folks down the line are doing for, or to, the county.
The problem is culture at county hall, culture born in commission chambers and the offices of the mayor and manager. As long as commissioners use county money as a cookie jar full of goodies to hand around, whether properly or not, and as long as top administrators don't tell employees to blow the whistle whenever they spot a problem, even when the commission is involved, money will keep flowing in wrong directions and penalties will be paid.
In this case, hundreds of agencies that aid children, the elderly, public health, crime fighting, recreation and other vital causes will pay those penalties.
But nobody is chastising commissioners. Nobody dares.
They gave away money they couldn't give, and the very groups they tried to help now will pay the price.
And commissioners will find a handy scapegoat: they'll point at county administration for not knowing what was going on Ð because, indeed, it should have known.
Good going, commissioners. Way to spend, administrators.