Pittsburgh City Housing Authority paying consultant to plan for future

Jan. 1 deadline set to implement adviser's report

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Facing funding cuts but with a six-figure consulting report in hand, the new leader of Pittsburgh's largest landlord is setting a Jan. 1 deadline for putting in place what he called "across the board" changes in how the city's public housing is managed.

Caster Binion, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, said Wednesday that when he's done implementing a Washington, D.C-based firm's recommendations, the authority will be better able to manage its 900-camera surveillance system, maintain its 4,262 apartments, inspect its 5,430 Section 8 units and move low-income residents toward careers.

He wasn't, however, providing details.

"Efficiency. One word," he said. There won't be "two or three people doing the same job," and the authority's 300-plus person staff will be retooled to handle emerging technology.

The authority hired Human Capital Initiatives LLC, or HCi, 15 months ago, for up to $195,000, and charged the company with evaluating virtually every part of its operations. Left out of the consultant's evaluation was the authority's expansive development effort, which is mostly handled by another consultant, Tampa, Fla.-based CVR Associates.

Mr. Binion said he'll pick from HCi's recommendations and they'll "take effect no later than Jan. 1.

"The outcomes will probably take a year."

Mr. Binion, who has been with the authority since 2006 and was named executive director in February, suggested that the organization chart wasn't ideal for handling things like the massive amount of data flowing from its $5.2 million security camera system.

"Anything you can think of to do with cameras, [the authority is doing]. We have to manage that," he said. "We want to have the proper staffing level to accommodate the technology we have."

Similarly, Mr. Binion wants to change how maintenance is handled, using bar coding and computerized planning to ensure that trucks are stocked with the right parts and repairman routes are as efficient as possible.

"All that technology they use in the business world, we're going to bring it to the public world," Mr. Binion said.

Likewise, he's applying goals and measurements to the Family Self-Sufficiency program, which already helps 1,006 residents who are trying to move into careers.

The report isn't coming cheap. HCi's consultants bill anywhere from $70 to $200 an hour, plus travel, hotel and meal expenses. The authority has so far paid the firm $166,808.

That comes at a time when federal sequestration is costing the authority $9.2 million this year, but Mr. Binion defended the spending.

"If you apply technology, you're going to save money," Mr. Binion said. He said the authority doesn't face layoffs this year, but could be hard-pressed next year.

The Fresno Housing Authority in California contracted HCi about four years ago to re-evaluate the organization and determine a business plan that would set the authority in line with other organizations like itself across the country.

What started as a business plan quickly became a long-term working relationship, Fresno executive director Preston Prince said, with HCi performing additional evaluations and analyses on different branches of Fresno's authority. The consulting was an attempt to make the organization as efficient as possible, much like Mr. Binion's plans for the Pittsburgh Housing Authority.

"We need someone to help us think about things," Mr. Prince said. "We really have believed in bringing in people who add value. [HCi doesn't] tell you, Fresno, how to do something. They come in and understand the values of the community and then help think about the best practices."

HCi managing principal Jason Geno couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Post-Gazette sought to review HCI's invoices, payments and reports under the state right-to-know law. The authority denied access only to the reports, saying they touched on personnel and security issues.

Invoices provided by the authority, though, showed that HCi has touched on everything from discipline to salaries to the use of outside legal counsel.

The authority board in February voted to allow as much as $3.5 million in payments to law firms over three years, a level Mr. Binion characterized as within the norm for an authority with a budget of $148.1 million.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority faced legal ramifications, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, following an investigation into misused Housing and Urban Development funding that was funneled into outside legal consultants. Mr. Binion is determined to know the fine details of his organization -- cue the report from HCi.

"What happened in Philly, we want to make sure we're not in the same situation, so we have to evaluate it," Mr. Binion said.

In government, setting a deadline is perilous, but Mr. Binion said he's determined to get the changes in place by Jan. 1.

"At the end of the day, my whole administration is about measurement, and objectives, so I have to put an end date on it," he said. "Any time you get a new leader, the leader puts their own brand on it."

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. Brittany Horn: bhorn@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1280 or Twitter: @brittanyhorn.


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