La Joya Housing Authority approves tentative budget

LA JOYA — The La Joya Housing Authority board of commissioners approved a $329,517 budget Monday for the 2020 fiscal year, though it is unlikely to be the final version.

The approved budget amount is about the same as the previous budget, according to Executive Director Ruben Villarreal, who added that the budget will likely undergo drastic changes.

The budget includes a total income of $329,517 and $328,955 in expenses.

Their budgeted income included funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, including a $165,000 operating subsidy and a $36,000 grant.

However, Villarreal reminded the board that HUD is still withholding funds.

“We officially aren’t funded through HUD yet,” Villarreal said. “We haven’t received a federal dollar since November 2018, I believe.”

The lack of funding from HUD is due to the housing authority’s designation as “troubled” by the agency because of the failing score the authority received under the Public Housing Assessment System.

The failing score was due to their expenses equaling more than their revenue, their poor rent collection and their below average occupancy of units, according to a July 1 letter from HUD.

Villarreal, though, said he was optimistic they would be funded soon, considering that in November, the housing authority submitted a recovery plan to HUD that the department had long been requesting.

As they operate right now, Villarreal said they “get by.”

“We pretty much operate as a property management system where the rents we collect pay for the operations of this building, of the maintenance, of fuel for the vehicle to go get things,” Villarreal said. “HUD hasn’t given us any money as of yet (but) I’m very, very, very optimistic that they will in the next 60 days.”

Villarreal added he received a letter from HUD that stated their recovery agreement had “gone to the next level” and was under review, which he took as a good sign.

“If they weren’t going to accept the recovery agreement, they would have told us so,” he said.

The recovery agreement, which was approved by the board on Nov. 19, detailed steps they would take to address deficiencies found in their 2018 fiscal year audit.

Those corrective steps included tracking the on-clock hours for their employees, maintaining records of their board meetings, implementing a procurement policy, maintaining accurate tenant records, and adopting responsible travel and training policies which the housing authority took a step further by agreeing to suspend all travel for one budget year, or 365 days.

Additionally, the audit found abuses of the housing authority’s waiting list, through which people sign up for an opportunity for low-rent or for Section 8 housing. In response, they pledged to abide by the waiting list protocols.

During Monday’s meeting, Board Commissioner Jose Armando Salinas raised concerns over their previous legal expenses.

Villarreal acknowledged that roughly half of the $20,000 that were budgeted for legal fees were already owed.

“It’s not legal fees that we are going to anticipate, we owe lawyers already as we speak,” he said.

However, he assured that their current attorney, McAllen-based Javier Villalobos, was not paid a retainer and would only charge them for the work he did.

Salinas, a tenant of the housing authority, pressed upon Villarreal to keep those expenses low and divert more funds to improve the tenants’ facilities.

The hope, Villarreal said, is that they soon get funded by HUD to divert money to those facilities.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do with HUD money, they give us money for that,” he said. “But they haven’t opened those coffers to us because we’re a troubled agency.”

“You’re right, this area is neglected, unfortunately,” Villarreal said. “But we’re trying very hard…to get those things fixed.”

bereniceg@themonitor.com