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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City’s housing, human services department struggles to find footing after merger

Debbie Detmer, executive director at Salem Arms Community Housing, poses for a photo Friday in the backyard of a Salem Arms apartment complex in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Debbie Detmer has worked for more than 15 years to get the homeless into homes.

Most recently, as executive director of Salem Arms Community Housing, she’s helped find homes for people disabled by mental illness.

Earlier this year, Salem Arms waited to receive about $84,000 in federal grant money funneled through Spokane City Hall. Detmer waited through July, August and September and into October before she said she even heard from the city, let alone saw a sign of a contract for the money. By then, the group already had spent $17,000, money it wasn’t sure the city could reimburse.

“Our agency is just too small to take the financial hardship created by this year’s grossly delayed contract. SACH have had a contract since 1991 and NEVER has it been this late,” Detmer wrote to Jerrie Allard, director of the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services department. “This lack of consideration or concern for your providers shows a grievous lack of professionalism.”

Detmer said the city had become an “inconsistent source of funding” and her group has decided to find funding elsewhere.

“To me it’s unconscionable. The city has a verbal command out there to house the homeless and mentally ill, and yet internally the agencies don’t give much respect,” she said, noting that her group now will find funding through the Spokane Housing Authority.

Critics say it’s just one of many recent missteps by the city’s CHHS department, a department created under Mayor David Condon in 2012 by merging the Human Services and Community Development departments. Following a second year of critical audit findings and an official censure for the department for mishandling grant money, Councilwoman Amber Waldref resigned from the CHHS board last week in frustration, citing a lack of communication and leadership within the department.

City officials argue the spate of bad news is simple coincidence, not a sign of a poorly run department. Jonathan Mallahan, director of the Neighborhood and Community Services Division that oversees CHHS, said the Salem Arms contract was delayed because it wasn’t as high a priority as other projects in town. He said the funding was also a belated victim of the government sequestration two years ago, when political gridlock led to automatic spending cuts by the federal government.

“Everyone thought the dust had settled with sequestration,” said Allard, head of the CHHS department, but the effects were still causing problems with the grant program, known as McKinney-Vento, that Salem Arms relied on. “It’s unfortunate, but that money is not disappearing from our community.”

The CHHS department, which doles out $13 million in federal grants a year, was created as part of the mayor’s effort to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies in City Hall. Allard said one example of this streamlining is the creation of a coordinated grant application that replaced five separate grant applications that neighborhoods formerly had to fill out: community development block grants, human services, emergency shelter, housing and essential needs, and continuum of care grants.

Mallahan agreed that creating a new city department had its difficulties, and said officials are “working everyday to address them.” He said the merger has led to a 10 percent decrease in operating costs, saving taxpayer money.

Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, suggested that the criticism of CHHS is political, and the controversy contrived by Council President Ben Stuckart and “spoon-fed” to the media.

In her resignation letter to Allard and Arlene Patton, the chair of the CHHS board, Waldref said the “organizational growing pains” that occurred when Condon merged two city departments into one, as well as three separate city boards into one, had not abated, primarily because there was a lack of transparency, communication and leadership.

She said she was generally concerned about neighborhood representation in City Hall.

“The interaction between neighborhoods, the new CHHS Department and the CHHS Board is not working,” she wrote, adding that city staff acting as “middlemen” between the city and neighborhoods “isn’t efficient or effective.”

Judith Gilmore, who has been involved in neighborhood politics since 1974, said Waldref was right.

“CHHS members are not interacting with the neighborhoods,” said Gilmore, who resigned from the CHHS board a year ago to focus on work. “There’s no intertwining with the CHHS board and neighborhoods. Neighborhoods feel like they are being pushed out of the picture. This didn’t happen before” the new department was created.

Waldref said she didn’t necessarily think creating the new department was a bad idea.

“I think we jumped into a lot of changes really fast and didn’t think about phasing in some of these things,” Waldref said. “I think we could’ve done it more methodically.”

Still, her letter created tension at City Hall. Michael Cannon was on Condon’s transition team that recommended the department merger and was the first chairman of the CHHS board. On Friday, he wrote a forceful reply to Waldref’s letter, calling it “juvenile and appalling,” “odd and scattered” and written from “an uneducated viewpoint.”

Cannon, who unsuccessfully ran against Councilwoman Candace Mumm last year, answered each of Waldref’s concerns point by point in his reply. At its conclusion, he said Waldref was “grandstanding” to “prove a point or make a statement,” but he said he was unsure of her point.

“Your letter said there is work to do. You’re correct. There is,” Cannon wrote. “And we will continue to do it despite having our work politicized by the Council to the detriment of Spokane’s homeless and low income citizens.”

Mallahan wouldn’t go as far as Cannon, but he did say Waldref’s letter contained numerous “inaccuracies.” “We’re making an investment in building a system that makes us a great grant-making entity,” Mallahan said.

He said he was disappointed by Waldref’s letter, calling it “a bit of surprise.”

“I was disappointed that this was the first I heard of it,” he said. “There was not an opportunity to work on these upfront.”

Stuckart said communication wasn’t lacking, and asserts that the only “leverage” the council has is withholding funding, which it did earlier this year with the McKinney-Vento funding to get the administration to “follow city law.” Mallahan said this delay also contributed to the city’s tardiness in awarding the funds and therefore led to Salem Arms deciding not to work with the city.

Stuckart disagreed, suggesting blame was being shifted.

“Maybe instead of saying it’s all fine, you re-evaluate it,” he said. “When you try to cut government too much, too fast there are ramifications. Sometimes they don’t come out for two years.”