In a show of progress, Thurston County renewed housing contracts with a local nonprofit despite earlier identification of fraud in a rental assistance program it operated.
Last week, the County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved 2022 housing contracts with the Lewis, Mason and Thurston Counties Community Action Board for a combined $3.6 million.
Thurston County abruptly canceled its rental assistance contracts with CAC in February after a county audit identified payments to alleged fraudulent claims. The decision sparked a feud between the county and the CAC and disrupted rental assistance payments for the public.
However, the county was ready to move forward with the ACC on Tuesday. Commissioner and board chair Carolina Mejia voted in favor of the contracts after saying in April that she could not trust CAC with future contracts.
“I am advancing on these contracts precisely because of their recent cooperation with our Office of the Auditor and with our Public Health and Human Services (department),” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
A contract provides $3.4 million for Housing and Basic Needs, a program to prevent homelessness and rehouse unemployable adults and provide them with basic needs.
About 317 people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness received help through the program each month in 2021, according to CAC.
The county also funded CAC’s rapid relocation program with a $200,000 contract renewal. This program provides assistance and short-term rental services. To qualify for the program, people must go through Coordinated Entry, the county’s emergency housing system that prioritizes people based on their vulnerability.
The renewals do not give CAC its previous ability to provide rental assistance to Thurston County residents. The county contracted LiveStories, a Seattle-based company, in March to resume those payments.
However, the county stopped accepting new applications for rental assistance on June 15 due to dwindling funds and a huge backlog.
The council decided to accept the contract renewals after adding clarifying and additional language addressing audit, access and management expectations, according to county documents.
Auditor Mary Hall explained the additions during an agenda-setting meeting Tuesday with the council. She said she expects the county to have a much better relationship with the ACC in the future.
“What we wanted to do was just take the laws and rules that already exist and just highlight them, which I think we did well,” Halls said. “(Staff) have been working with ACC staff for the past two weeks and it’s going really well.”
The county audit initially revealed suspicions of fraud in the rental assistance program during a follow-up period for subrecipients. CAC later disputed that fraud was ever discovered and argued that the county treated them unfairly after the surveillance.
Communication between the two groups broke down, and some leaders of other nonprofit organizations criticized the county’s actions.
Hall told the board that she continues to hold conversations with ACC officials to discuss their roles.
“We’re partners in this, and we all have the same goal,” Hall said. “So I think it’s just about improving communication and making sure they’re compliant.”
Given the previous issues, contract renewals designate CAC as “high risk”. Deputy County Manager Robin Campbell said the tag was valid because the CAC had failed to meet expectations.
Campbell said the county recovered some, but not all, fraudulent rental assistance payments. She also pointed out that the county is required to include its risk assessment in the contract under federal law.
Yet Commissioner Tye Menser objected to highlighting the label in the first paragraph.
“I just want to point out that if the protections are there, the label is more inflammatory than it probably means,” Menser said. “I think it would be smart if we tried to rebuild the relationship to minimize name calling and labeling.”
However, Mejia and commissioner Gary Edwards insisted on keeping the label as is, especially given everything that’s happened this year.
“They’re still a high-risk subrecipient organization, so I think we need to put those protections in place,” Mejia said.
Edwards said he wondered if he would support the new contracts, but he ultimately backed the added language.
“I realize it’s a bit of tough love, but I really think we need to put it on the street before what we expect and not have it in another area,” Edwards said.
At the subsequent meeting, Menser admitted he was outvoted on the label issue, but he still supported renewals.
“I think it’s a contract we’ve used successfully in the past and we have new clarifications which should make things really smooth and transparent going forward,” Menser said. “So I’m just looking forward to working through some of our recent struggles.”