Capitol recap: Latest DCED audit shows sluggish, unaccountable state bureaucracy

     Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale  (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    State auditors have no plan for following up their scathing assessment of programs meant to help Pennsylvanians who are homeless or at risk.

    Auditors found social service agencies in six counties were unable to assist hundreds of people who needed help paying rent, utility bills or a security deposit during 2011 thorough 2013, despite nearly $1 million available to address those very issues, according to a report detailing an audit of the state Department of Community & Economic Development.

    Others endured staying in a shelter packed to double its capacity, according to the accompanying statement released last week by the state Auditor General’s office.

    Yet state auditors have no plan for following up their scathing assessment of the programs responsible for handling the money.

    The audit focuses on the DCED’s Center for Community Financing. The Center handles the Emergency Shelter Grant (ESG) and HOME Investment Partnerships (HOME) programs in Pennsylvania.

    The audit examines the period from  2011 through 2014, before the arrival of some current DCED officials, including Secretary Dennis Davin and his Deputy for Community Affairs James Meade.

    Davin has prioritized these programs, though. Since he started in January, they’ve been restructured. DCED’s hired new staffers and brought consultants as well, Meade says.

    Meade told PennLive he’s “beyond confident” the delays and missteps highlighted by the audit won’t happen again.

    State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale couldn’t pinpoint why, exactly, staffers took so long, other than the program didn’t seem to be a priority and communication was poor. DCED professed the same, that the information wasn’t available from the prior administration. And there’s no plan to find out whether DCED follows the new recommendations as well, and whether it’s all enough to adequately address the problem.

    Most suggestions are for changes that would make DCED processes faster, clearer and more consistent. An example: give invoices a second review within a few months, rather than the year-plus DCED sometimes waited during the audit period.

    Accountability vacuum

    Will DCED follow the advice for unaddressed issues as well? And if so, will it all get things running smoothly? Prevent badly needed money from sitting around unspent in the future?

    Maybe. Hopefully?

    A follow-up “audit is possible, but not guaranteed” after DCED has time to implement the recommendations, Auditor General’s office spokeswoman Susan Woods wrote in an email.

    How much time? Two years? Six months? Woods couldn’t say. She also couldn’t say how the office intends to check on progress, even informally.

    Here’s the thing: state law doesn’t require audits of these particular funding programs. This one was a “special performance audit” brought on by complaints from county officials, according to Woods and DePasquale.

    This accountability vacuum is also a problem for agencies that are required to be audited by state law. They’re also evaluated on their progress since past audits.

    Those requisite, consistent audits tend to generate fewer recommendations than the DCED audit. It had 39, which DePasquale says is “a lot.”

    Inexplicable delays

    Each recommendation in the audit focuses on a specific process or step. In most cases, the recommendations involve faster follow-up, more consistency, adding or clarifying guidelines, establishing or tightening timelines, or a combination of those.

    “Even if this was run perfectly, it’s hard to quantify (how many) individuals would have been assisted if DCED had been more efficient. Even when we are fully funded and moving very quickly, we … consistently have a waiting list,” says Ben Laudermilch, executive director of the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.

    The report states Cumberland County couldn’t help 15 families because DCED didn’t redistribute money returned after it was unspent during previous funding cycles. The “15”  represents about how many families might have been helped with the amount of funding Cumberland sought and did not receive from DCED in 2011 and 2012, Laudermilch says. He says because those weren’t specific cases, he doesn’t know what happened to those families.

    DCED staff told auditors they held the unspent money in case one of the other qualifying agencies spent more than anticipated. But none of the prospective recipients knew about the extra cash, according to the report.

    Laudermilch says there’s also room for improvement in the department’s processing speed. Contracts, for example, that sometimes take two or three months to execute in the worst-case scenario sometimes take twice as long, he says.

    Auditors found the same.

    Laudermilch also notes DCED could be short-staffed, given its budget has been decimated in recent years. To be exact, its 2014 budget of $204 million was less than one third the $631 million amount in 2008, state budget documents show.

    DePasquale says there was money for DCED to help pay for staff to run these programs. He says he doesn’t know why that didn’t happen. DCED staff interviewed for this story professed the same.

    DCED hired a new person to run the Center for Community Financing and restructured existing staff after the audit started, but before recommendations were issued. The former director left during the audit (although DCED won’t confirm his exit was related). There’s been internal restructuring and new hires. And officials say that sometime between year’s end and mid-way through next, the Center will be caught up on skipped or delayed monitoring to ensure funding’s being properly spent (a consulting firm’s helping with that).

    Other audit findings:

    •    Some applications went longer than 15 months without review. That’s more than twice as long as the timeline suggested by auditors. Other time frames and processes were “unacceptable” too, the report notes. For example, DCED took so long to finalize contracts, which are required before money can be spent, that some of last year’s recipients had less than a month to spend it. There were similar delays for DCED’S secondary, closer examinations of invoices submitted by grant recipients. DCED needs to do that to make sure the money’s being spent properly, but either skipped that entirely or waited over a year. Pasquale’s office advises a quarterly cycle. Part of the problem is that state, and sometimes federal, policies do not specify deadlines, time frames, due dates, etc.

    •    A total of $20 million wasn’t distributed in a timely fashion.

    •    The office inconsistently monitored recipients to ensure they spent funding properly. It happened as often as 85 percent of the time, but as infrequently as five percent of the time, depending on the funding program and monitoring type.

     

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