Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority spent almost $80,000 more than its counterpart in Bristol, Tennessee last year when it came to travel and training. While KHRA employees traveled to places like San Diego, Maine and Oregon in 2014, employees in Bristol, according to public records, didn’t venture far at all. The farthest anyone there traveled was Nashville and Wytheville.
KHRA has two-and-a-half times more employees than Bristol and its operating budget is five times larger, but public records reveal Kingsport spent 16 times more on training and travel in 2014. Unlike its counterpart in Kingsport, which spent $84,000 in travel and training in 2014, the Bristol Tennessee Housing and Redevelopment Authority spent much less, roughly $5,000 according to the agency.
“Well, we really can’t afford to go anywhere else to be honest with you,” BTHRA Executive Director Steve Scyphers said. “I won’t say that I would never go to Las Vegas or those places and typically the resort type areas are where a lot of these trainings are held and I guess that’s a draw for some people, but we just don’t have the funding to travel like that.”
When we previously questioned KHRA about its travel budget, a housing authority that recently made cuts amid declining federal funding, the former board chairman ended the interview and asked us to leave.
“We send people to training sessions that we need to send them to, we review their expenses when they come back,” former KHRA Chairman Jack VandeVate said. “We are comfortable with what we do and we don’t need you smarta**es telling us how to do it.”
The agency still hasn’t let us look at the receipts from those trips, pending a federal legal opinion, but that was not the case at Bristol Tennessee Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Scyphers let us look at the receipts Monday and those expenses showed few trips last year.
According to Scyphers, a tight budget coupled with the agency’s two high rises, which cost more to maintain yet receive less federal funding, have Bristol constantly looking for ways to get training close to home through local seminars, webinars and in-house training.
Kingsport takes advantage of those as well, but records previously showed that agency took far more long-distance trips in 2014. Kingsport has maintained it needed all $84,000 of its expenses to properly train new employees and other staff who changed job duties.
“KHRA has 32 staff members and operates on an annual budget of $12.5 million. (Bristol Housing Authority’s annual budget is approximately $2.4 million),” KHRA spokesperson Sharon Hayes said. “In 2014, several staff members left KHRA, which led to the hiring of new people who required training. This is specialized training that is not offered in this region. In addition, we cross-train many of our staff in specialized functions to ensure continuity of service.”
Not only is Kingsport’s budget larger, the agency has more employees, offers more services and manages more than four times more housing units compared to BTHRA’s 564 units total.
“KHRA is a multi-jurisdictional housing authority with a baseline of 1,242 Housing Choice Voucher Program Section 8 vouchers covering six counties in Northeast Tennessee,” Hayes said. “It also operates 529 units of traditional public housing units within the city of Kingsport.”
In addition, Hayes mentioned several other programs that provide hundreds of homes to other members of society. She also says the agency is proud of its efforts to bring in more revenue to the City of Kingsport.
“In 2006, KHRA received an $11.9 million HOPE VI grant from HUD to redevelop Riverview Apartments,” she said. “KHRA demolished the original 92 units at Riverview and constructed 116 units, including 54 offsite units of elderly/disabled housing, 24 offsite single family homes in the Sherwood/Hiwassee neighborhoods, and 38 energy efficient public housing units on the original Riverview site. The HOPE VI project also included converting the old George Washington School into 54 apartments for low-income elderly residents. Today, the George Washington School Apartments are generating $42,104 in city and county annual property taxes vs. $0 prior to the redevelopment. KHRA also works with the City of Kingsport to administer the redevelopment plan through tax increment financing (TIF) in five Redevelopment Districts. KHRA successfully administered TIF in the development of East Stone Commons and the redevelopment of the Crown Point shopping center. Today, the East Stone Commons TIF is generating $493,439 in combined property taxes for the city and county, an increase of $431,970. The TIF loan for East Stone Commons paid off in 2015. Going forward, the full amount of the property taxes will revert to the city and county. The Crown Point TIF is generating $171,224 in combined property taxes, an increase of $111,575. The TIF loan for Crown Point should be paid off in 2021, when the full amount of the property taxes will revert to the city and county.”
Back in Bristol, Scyphers says each agency is allowed to operate differently.
“As long as you’re following state law, federal law, HUD guidelines, each agency operates the way they see fit,” he said.
What about the Johnson City Housing Authority? How much did that agency spend on training and travel last year? JCHA Executive Director Richard McClain is not willing to turn over that information, despite Bristol and even Kingsport sharing their travel totals.
“The Public Housing program is a Federal program,” McClain said when we asked. “HUD’s Public Housing program financial data is restricted and is not public. JCHA is not authorized by HUD to release restricted data. Public Housing financial records belong to HUD not JCHA. You should contact HUD to request HUD data. All public housing program data that is identified as public information is posted on HUD’s website. Public Housing financial data is not subject to the FOIA per HUD’s attorney.”
We are in the process of disputing that stance. In the meantime, we are also still waiting on the federal government to provide an opinion as to whether or not we can look at Kingsport’s travel receipts.
Copyright WJHL 2015. All rights reserved.