By Donald Wittkowski
Amid its ongoing structural and management reforms, the Ocean City Housing Authority will now place a stronger emphasis on finding local residents to fill vacancies when they open up at its housing facilities for senior citizens and low-income families, the agency’s chairman says.
Bob Barr, the city councilman who also serves as chairman of the authority’s board of commissioners, said there was “no urgency” in the past to place Ocean City residents in the Bay View Manor complex for senior citizens or the Pecks Beach Village housing site for families.
Ocean City residents are supposed to be given preference for vacancies. However, Barr said more people from outside Ocean City were approved for housing at the Bay View Manor and Pecks Beach Village sites under the authority’s ex-management led by former Executive Director Alesia Watson. On May 16, Watson was removed by the board after she pleaded guilty to an embezzlement scheme involving her misuse of authority credit cards.
At the same time it dumped Watson, the board approved a shared services agreement with the Vineland Housing Authority to have its executive director, Jacqueline Jones, fill the same position for the Ocean City Housing Authority. Barr said under Jones’ leadership, the authority will now emphasize the plan to try to fill housing vacancies with Ocean City residents.
“There was no urgency to find Ocean City residents prior to Jackie coming on board,” he said.
Seven vacancies have recently opened up, five at Bay View Manor and two at Pecks Beach Village. The housing authority began taking applications for those units on July 10 and will continue the process through Aug. 30.
To date, only 11 applications have been turned in for those vacancies, said Sandy Velez, the authority’s assistant asset manager.
Velez told the authority’s board members during their monthly meeting July 18 that there are plans to “inundate” Ocean City with applications to get more local residents to sign up.
The authority has publicized the housing vacancies through its website, in newspaper notices and in fliers.
Jones explained that there isn’t a great deal of turnover with the tenants living at the authority’s housing sites. The seven vacancies have created the first openings in months, she noted.
The heavier emphasis to find local residents to fill housing vacancies follows a number of financial and structural reforms at the authority prompted by Watson’s embezzlement scandal.
On May 8, Watson admitted she misused two Ocean City 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 then used U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds administered by the housing 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 said between $6,500 and $15,000 was lost in Watson’s embezzlement scheme. Watson, 54, of Galloway Township, is scheduled for sentencing in federal court on Aug. 15 and faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Prompted by concerns about the Watson embezzlement case, the housing authority hired an outside accounting firm to conduct an audit covering the period from Oct. 1, 2015, to Oct. 1, 2016. As previously reported by OCNJDAILY.com, the audit and a “corrective action plan” were approved by the authority’s board on July 18 as part of the ongoing financial and management overhaul of the agency following Watson’s guilty plea.
The audit and other documents were handed over to an investigator from HUD’s Office of the Inspector General on Monday amid a federal probe of the housing authority’s finances. The authority has also contacted the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office about the possibility of conducting an investigation in the wake of Watson’s embezzlement case, Barr said.
Barr, however, has expressed confidence that the housing authority has begun a turnaround under its new leadership and reforms. He also said HUD has signaled its approval of the authority’s new management team.
The housing authority uses federal funds from HUD to provide affordable housing for low-income senior citizens, families and the disabled at its Pecks Beach Village and Bay View Manor facilities.