By Donald Wittkowski
The financially troubled Ocean City Housing Authority, still trying to recover from an embezzlement scandal involving its former chief executive, has been dealt even more blows following the death of one of its board members and resignation of another.
The loss of those two commissioners was magnified Tuesday when the authority was forced to cancel its monthly board meeting because it lacked a quorum. Bob Barr, a city councilman who serves as the authority’s chairman, said the board likely will have to wait until October to meet again.
“Everything is on hold right now,” he said.
The death of Commissioner Ed Speitel on Sept. 11 and resignation of Commissioner Portia Thompson leaves three vacancies on the seven-member board. Barr said Thompson submitted her resignation to Mayor Jay Gillian last week, but he did not know the reason why she stepped down.
Barr hopes to sit down with Gillian this week to discuss the vacancies. The mayor and City Council are responsible for making most of the appointments to the authority’s board, Barr said.
There is a third vacancy on the board because Gov. Chris Christie has not yet appointed his representative to the housing authority. That seat has been open for more than a year, Barr said. It is not yet clear when the governor will make the appointment, although there are indications that it may happen just before Christie’s term in office expires in January.
“We have been told by various sources that he will not fill the vacancy until the end of his term,” Barr said.
Barr noted that the housing authority is not being singled out by Christie. Overall, there are 425 similar vacancies on government boards and authorities throughout the state, according to Barr.
The Ocean City Housing Authority uses federal funds to provide affordable housing for low-income senior citizens, families and the disabled at its Pecks Beach Village and Bay View Manor facilities.
Under the board’s supervision, the authority has been implementing a series of management and financial reforms following the firing last May of former Executive Director Alesia Watson, who pleaded guilty to embezzling federal funds from the agency. Watson avoided jail when she was sentenced to three years of probation on Sept. 7.
During her guilty plea on May 8, Watson admitted misusing two housing authority credit cards to buy 69 MasterCard gift cards between December 2013 and March 2015. The gift cards were used for personal expenses and were also shared by Watson with friends and family members, authorities said.
Watson used U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds administered by the authority to pay off the credit card bills associated with her purchase of the gift cards, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Authorities estimated between $6,500 and $15,000 was lost in the embezzlement scheme.
As the authority looks to rebuild itself in the post-Watson era, the death of Speitel, in particular, is a “tremendous loss” because of the vast knowledge he had about public housing, Barr said.
“Without him to help us, I’ve got to believe we’ll be in serious trouble,” Barr said.
Speitel, 61, served as the chairman of the housing authority’s finance and redevelopment committees and also worked closely with federal officials at HUD. Speitel, who owned an engineering company, helped to build projects for other housing authorities in New Jersey, giving him even more insight into the world of public housing, Barr stated.
“I’m going to miss him a lot, not only as a nice person and great human being, but also as such a wealth of knowledge,” Barr said.
Compounding its troubles, the authority has also been struggling with its finances. Jacqueline Jones, the new executive director who took over after Watson’s removal, reported last month that the agency is running at a $100,000 loss. The deficit was caused by delays in getting the federal budget approved.
Jones told the board members during the August meeting that the authority will be “very, very low on cash” through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The authority’s finances have been strained by a late $117,000 payment from HUD. Normally, the money would have arrived from HUD months ago, but has been held up by delays with the federal budget’s approval in Washington, Jones explained.
The HUD funding can be used for both the housing authority’s capital and operating expenses. The money is not expected to come to the authority until the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Until then, the authority will tighten its belt and hold off on any extra capital projects, although it will keep up with basic maintenance repairs, Jones said.