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Ogdensburg’s housing program: A history of problems, an uncertain future

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OGDENSBURG — You have to know the past to understand the present.

City Council members intended to discuss the future of Ogdensburg’s housing program Monday evening, but instead received a history lesson from James A. O’Neill, president of C.W. Augustine, the DeKalb Junction firm administering the program.

“As early as 2005, the county was asking if we could come up here and help,” he said. “We’re cleaning up 20 years’ worth of stuff.”

Though the council gave C.W. Augustine a green light to apply for state grants last month, some members complained the vote to continue the housing rehabilitation program was rushed through before they could discuss the program’s direction.

“The housing program troubles began 10 months ago,” said Councilman Wayne L. Ashley. “I seriously have a problem. When we ran for office, we were going to revise our housing program. Eight months later, we did nothing more than rubber-stamp the same thing we were complaining about.”

Mr. Ashley and Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley expressed concern that a May 29 motion to permit C.W. Augustine to write and administer state housing rehabilitation grants was presented as a deadline.

“This was sprung on us at the last minute. We were told a decision had to be made,” Mr. Ashley said. “I don’t think anyone had appropriate time to think about it.”

At that meeting, Mr. O’Neill convinced the council to affirm the need for housing rehabilitation and retain his firm to meet a July 16 application deadline for the state Consolidated Funding Application.

The council chose to hold off the search for a new housing administrator until the end of the year at that meeting, a decision it upheld through consensus Monday.

Inheriting A Mess

Though the housing program suffers from a tarnished image, it is a far cry from the mess C.W. Augustine inherited.

The firm was hired as administrator of the city’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program in 2010, but saw its responsibilities expand to the rest of the housing programs as it became clear that the city would be cut off from federal and state funds unless leftover problems were cleaned up.

Under the leadership of former city planner Martin D. Murphy, program funds were misused, Mr. O’Neill said.

“Ogdensburg was supposed to be granting the money, but they were lending it instead,” he said. “It is a bookkeeping nightmare for the city. All of that money has to be tracked as to source and then reused according to program guidelines.”

Mr. Morley acknowledged that not all the program income was used for further housing rehabilitation.

Between 2004 and 2009, the program was cited by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state Office of Community Renewal with poor communication and documentation and inadequate reporting of financial transactions.

At the time, keeping track of the money proved to be an impossible task for the housing office’s two-person staff. One of C.W. Augustine’s first tasks for the city was to close out the old grant programs to bring the city back in good standing with funding sources.

A City In Need

Mr. O’Neill said Ogdensburg residents were using the housing office as a home repair service instead of a housing rehabilitation program.

“People would get windows one year and a roof the next,” he said. “We’re dealing with people at a lower income a lot of the time, and a lot of these people have an extreme entitlement mentality. In Ogdensburg, it is worse. Even the state officials have noticed it.”

Mr. O’Neill also said residents of the city manipulated contractors, administrators, city staff and elected officials to try to get more out of the program.

“This is the clientele we deal with,” he said. “If they think they can get more, they’ll come crying here. All they need is an excuse to whine.”

Last summer, the City Council complained about poor allocation of funds, shoddy workmanship and infrequent or missed inspections by the housing program brought to light after it was revealed a family lived in one rehabilitated property for three years without paying rent or taxes to the city.

In the meantime, C.W. Augustine applied unsuccessfully on behalf of the city for 2011 housing rehabilitation funds.

“We wrote a round of grants and it wasn’t our fault we didn’t get funded,” Mr. O’Neill said. “It was the kerfuffle over Knox Street that caused us to lose out.” The controversy concerns a city-owned property at 819 Knox St. where residents reportedly were allowed to live rent- and tax-free for three years.

Back On Track

With the council’s blessing, C.W. Augustine prepared to write this year’s applications, but Mr. Morley and Mr. Ashley balked at continuing the relationship.

“I think we could find a dozen other people who could run this program for us,” he said. “I would like to see a request for proposals in 30 days.”

Mr. O’Neill cautioned against changing horses in midstream.

“If we write the grant and are not the administrator, chances are you will not get funded,” he said. “OCR will dock points if a grant application comes in and says that an administrator will be hired by a request for proposals.”

The council relented.

“We can finish this grant out with C.W. Augustine and then bring in a new administrator,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Stevenson.

The council closed the meeting with a request to review Ogdensburg’s contract with C.W. Augustine.

“If it looks like we can get out of the contract, I will make a resolution to terminate it next Monday,” Mr. Ashley said.

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