By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City’s public housing agency reported Tuesday that it turned a $372,000 profit in fiscal 2020, solidifying a financial turnaround that began three years ago in the aftermath of an embezzlement scandal involving its former chief executive.
The hiring of a new executive director, the appointment of new board members and a series of financial and operational reforms starting in 2017 are credited with helping to fix the Ocean City Housing Authority’s shaky existence.
“We didn’t have any money to pay our own bills,” Executive Director Jacqueline Jones told the board members about the authority’s financial plight three years ago.
Jones, who is also the executive director of the Vineland Housing Authority, was brought in to serve in the same role in Ocean City after the agency’s former chief executive was fired in 2017 following her indictment on embezzlement charges.
Alesia Watson was removed from the Ocean City Housing Authority after she admitted she had embezzled federal housing funds to pay credit card bills for personal expenses. Federal prosecutors said between $6,500 and $15,000 was lost in the scheme. Watson was sentenced to three years of probation.
City Council President Bob Barr, who also serves as chairman of the Ocean City Housing Authority’s board, praised Jones and her staff for completing a financial turnaround that he said was nothing short of “remarkable.”
“It’s kudos to Jackie and her team,” Barr said in an interview after the authority’s monthly board meeting Tuesday. “We owe her a debt of gratitude to take this on.”
During the meeting, it was revealed that the authority posted a $372,000 profit for the 2020 fiscal year ending Sept. 30. It represented the third consecutive profitable year under Jones’ leadership.
“Ninety-nine percent of the credit goes to her for all the work she does and continues to do,” Barr said of Jones.
The authority’s financial recovery began in fiscal 2018, when the agency turned a profit of $179,452, compared to a nearly $300,000 loss in the prior fiscal year.
The $372,000 profit in fiscal 2020 will become part of the authority’s cash reserve, helping to fund its operations and projects, Jones said.
A series of state and federal grants helped to boost the authority’s finances in fiscal 2020, Jones said. She also explained that the agency was able to stabilize its finances when it converted its form of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development into a “Rental Assistance Demonstration,” or RAD.
RAD is a voluntary HUD program that provides public housing agencies with a source of more stable funding to make improvements to the projects under their control.
Now debt free, the authority has paid off all the money it owed to Ocean City and the state – a total of about $359,000 – for their financial assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“There was no way with the remarkable turnaround we had that we could do this alone,” Barr said, praising the city for its financial help.
In 2019, City Council approved a $6.6 million bond ordinance to build or rehabilitate affordable housing sites for senior citizens and low-income families in partnership with the housing authority. The projects will help Ocean City meet its state-mandated obligation to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing as part of a court settlement in 2018.
The centerpiece of Ocean City’s affordable housing plan is a nearly $7 million, 32-unit project under construction at the corner of Sixth Street and West Avenue. Known as Speitel Commons, it will provide housing for senior citizens when it opens in spring 2021 next to the authority’s Bayview Manor complex.
“It’s amazing how fast they’re moving along there,” Jones told the board members about the contractor’s progress in building Speitel Commons.
The city is expected to contribute more than $2 million toward the Speitel Commons project. The New Jersey Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency is providing $4.5 million in funding.
The housing authority and the city also are working together to build 10 affordable rental homes in locations across town. The authority will develop and manage the homes.