As a sign of progress, Thurston County renewed housing contracts with a local nonprofit, despite having previously identified fraud in a rental assistance program it operated.
The Council of County Commissioners last week unanimously approved the 2022 housing contracts with the Lewis, Mason and Thurston Counties Community Action Council for a combined $3.6 million.
Thurston County abruptly terminated its rental assistance contracts with CAC in February after a county audit found payments to suspected fraudulent applications. The move sparked a feud between the county and CAC and disrupted payments for housing benefit for the public.
On Tuesday, however, the province was ready to move forward with CAC. Commissioner and CEO Carolina Mejia voted in favor of the contracts after saying in April that she could not entrust CAC with future contracts.
“I will continue with these contracts precisely because of their recent collaboration with our Court of Auditors and with our Health and Social Services (department),” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
One contract provides $3.4 million for housing and essential needs, a program aimed at preventing homelessness and rehousing unemployed adults and meeting basic needs.
About 317 people who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless received assistance each month through the program in 2021, according to CAC†
The county also funded CAC’s rapid relocation program with a $200,000 contract extension. This program provides assistance and services for short term rentals. To be eligible for the program, people must undergo coordinated access, the county’s emergency housing system that prioritizes people based on vulnerability.
The extensions do not give CAC their previous ability to provide rental assistance to residents of Thurston County. The county signed a deal with Seattle-based LiveStories in March to resume those payments.
However, the province stopped accepting new housing allowance applications on June 15 due to: declining funds and a huge backlog†
The board proceeded to accept the contract extensions after adding clarification and additional language about auditing, access and management expectations, according to provincial documents.
Accountant Mary Hall explains the additions during an agenda-setting meeting with the board on Tuesday. She said she expects the county to have a much better relationship with CAC in the future.
“What we wanted to do was just take existing laws and regulations out and just emphasize them, which I think we did well,” Halls said. “(Staff) has been working with CAC staff for the past few weeks and it’s actually going really well.”
The provincial audit initially revealed suspected fraud in the rental assistance program during a review period of underrecipients. CAC then disputed that fraud had ever been found, arguing that the county treated them unfairly after the check.
Communication between the two groups fell and some leaders of other non-profit organizations criticized the actions of the province†
Hall told the board she will continue to hold talks with CAC officials to discuss their roles.
“We’re partners in this and we all have the same goal,” Hall said. “So I think it’s really just about improving the communication and making sure they comply.”
Given the past issues, the contract renewals designate CAC as ‘high risk’. Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell said the label is valid because CAC fell short of expectations.
Campbell said the county has recovered some fraudulent housing benefit payments, but not all. She also pointed out that federal law requires the county to include their risk assessment in the contract.
Still, Commissioner Tye Menser objected to a prominent mention of the label in the opening paragraph.
“I just want to make it clear that if the protection is there, the label is more incendiary than it probably means,” Menser said. “I think it would be smart if we tried to rebuild the relationship to keep the name-calling and labeling to a minimum.”
However, Mejia and Commissioner Gary Edwards were insistent on keeping the label as it is, especially considering everything that’s happened this year.
“They’re still a high-risk sub-recipient organization, so I think we need those safeguards,” Mejia said.
Edwards said he questioned whether he would support the new contracts, but he ultimately supported the added language.
“I realize it’s a bit of hard love, but I really feel like we need to put it right on the street what we expect and not some other area,” Edwards said.
At the later meeting, Menser admitted that he was voted out on the label front, but he still supported the innovations.
“I think this is a contract that we have used successfully in the past and we have some new clarifications that should really make things smooth and transparent going forward,” Menser said. “So I’m just looking forward to overcoming some of our recent problems.”