In a show of progress, Thurston County renewed housing contracts with a local nonprofit despite previously identifying fraud in a rent assistance program it managed.
The Board of County Commissioners last week unanimously approved the 2022 housing contracts with Community Action Council of Lewis, Mason and Thurston Counties for a combined amount of $ 3.6 million.
Thurston County abruptly canceled its rent assistance contracts with CAC in February after a county audit identified payments to suspected fraudulent applications. The move sparked a feud between the county and CAC and disrupted rent assistance payments for the public.
However, the county was ready to move forward with CAC on Tuesday. Commissioner and Board Chair Carolina Mejia voted in favor of the contracts after saying in April she could not trust CAC with future contracts.
“I’m moving forward on these contracts specifically just because of their recent cooperation with our Auditor’s Office and with our Public Health and Social Services (department),” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
One contract provides $ 3.4 million for Housing and Essential Needs, a program aimed at preventing homelessness and rehousing unemployable adults as well as providing them with basic needs.
About 317 people who were homeless or at risk of being homeless received help through the program each month in 2021, according to CAC.
The county also funded CAC’s rapid re-housing program with a $ 200,000 contract renewal. This program provides short-term rental assistance and services. To qualify for the program, people must go through coordinated entry, the county’s emergency housing system that prioritizes people based on vulnerability.
The renewals do not give CAC their previous ability to provide rent assistance to Thurston County residents. The county contracted with LiveStories, a Seattle company, in March to resume those payments.
However, the county stopped accepting new rent assistance applications on June 15 due to dwindling funds and an immense backlog.
The board moved to accept the contract renewals after adding clarifying and supplemental language addressing auditing, access and management expectations, according to county documents.
Auditor Mary Hall elaborated on the additions during a Tuesday agenda-setting meeting with the board. She said she expects the county to have a much better relationship with CAC going forward.
“What we wanted to do was just pull out already existing laws and rules and just highlight them, which I think we did well,” Halls said. “(Staff) has been working with CAC staff the last couple of weeks and it’s actually going really well.”
The county audit initially uncovered suspected fraud in the rental assistance program during a subrecipient monitoring period. CAC then disputed fraud was ever found and argued the county treated them unfairly after the monitoring.
Communication between the two groups broke down and some leaders from other non-profits criticized the county’s actions.
Hall told the board she is continuing to hold conversations with CAC officials to talk through their roles.
“We’re partners in this, and we all have the same goal,” Hall said. “So, I think it’s really just about improving communication and ensuring they comply.”
Given the previous issues, the contract renewals designate CAC as “high risk.” Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell said the label is valid because CAC failed to meet expectations.
Campbell said the county has recovered some fraudulent rent assistance payments but not all. She also pointed out the county is required to include their risk assessment in the contract under federal law.
Still, Commissioner Tye Menser objected to prominently featuring the label in the first paragraph.
“I just want to make the point that if the protections are there, the label is more inflammatory than really it probably means,” Menser said. “I think it would be smart if we tried to rebuild the relationship to minimize the name calling and labeling.”
However, Mejia and Commissioner Gary Edwards insisted on keeping the label as is, especially considering all that happened this year.
“They’re still a high-risk subrecipient organization so I think we need to have those protections in place,” Mejia said.
Edwards said he questioned whether he would support the new contracts, but he ultimately supported the added language.
“I realize it’s a bit of tough love, but I really feel we need to put it right out on the front street what we expect and do not have it in some other area,” Edwards said.
At the later meeting, Menser conceded he was outvoted on the label matter, but he still supported the renewals.
“I do think this is a contract that we’ve used successfully in the past and we have some new clarifications that should make things really smooth and transparent going forward,” Menser said. “So, I’m just looking forward to moving past some of our recent difficulties.”