Records supplied by the Mobile County Personnel Board show the number of merit system employees at the Mobile Housing Board has decreased by 25 since 2009 even as the number of employees at MHB’s non-profit subsidiary are significantly higher than they were even in 2010.
Mobile Personnel Board Director Donald Dees provided a breakdown of MHB’s employee totals for the past four years showing the number dropping — particularly over the past two years. According to the numbers provided, in 2009 MHB had 155 employees and 158 in 2010, but that number dropped to 141 in 2011 and 130 at the end of last year for a 16 percent decrease since the end of 2009.
The Housing Board lists its number of employees at 220 on its website, although it is not known when the total was that high and it is clear the site has not been updated in some time. MHB Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn wrote in an email that the decline in Housing Board employment numbers is directly related to a decrease in federal funding as well as normal attrition.
“To our knowledge, most agencies dependent on Federal funds in recent years have seen some contraction due to the historically low funding levels, federal sequestration and an emphasis at the Federal, state and local level of ‘doing more with less,’” Vaughn wrote. “In addition, MHB has a significant number of long-term employees, many of which have reached and are reaching retirement age. MHB has had a good number of employees retire or resign over the past several years and this accounts for a decrease in the number of employees. Moreover, with the deep Federal budget cuts over the past several years, there are not always resources to replace positions.”
But while the Housing Board has seen its ranks fall, its tax-exempt subsidiary, Mobile Development Enterprises, is still carrying three times the number of employees it reported on IRS records in 2010. Form 990s that were submitted to the IRS for MDE’s application to have its tax-exempt status reinstated indicate its number of employees jumped from 18 in 2010 to 72 in 2011. Vaughn places the current number of MDE employees at 54.
“The number of MDE employees saw an increase a couple of years ago primarily because of three factors: a) MDE changed its long-standing practice of employing long-term temporary employees to making those positions full-time MDE employees (Note: this was primarily related to the 17 day-care professionals in the day care facility); b) MDE expanded its commitment to economic and life-style independence and hired additional social service case managers for families to aid each family in achieving economic and life-style independence (@10 co-workers); and c) MHB hired nearly 27 construction and tradesmen on a limited basis to assist in the significant renovation of vacant units and other construction related activities. Some of the employment of these workers was recently ended,” Vaughn wrote.
Despite Vaughn’s explanation of why MDE’s employment has increased, it is still not clear how the entity has been paying its bills after finishing up 2011 more than half a million dollars in the hole.
According to the Form 990s provided by Vaughn, in 2011 MDE had a total loss of $582,000 and counting all money carried forward from previous years the company was still more than $550,000 in the red overall. MDE derives the vast majority of its money from the Housing Board in the form of grants and contributions.
Perhaps even more curiously, the Form 990 for 2011 that claims MDE had increased its number of employees by 54 from the previous year, also shows the company had lowered its payroll by more than $250,000, something that would seem antithetical with such a large jump in employees.
Vaughn did not directly explain how MDE paid its bills and made payroll while running such a deficit. He did say the situation may lead to a staff reduction.
“The money to pay salaries and other expenses came from grants, fees collected by MHB, COCC funds and other de-federalized funding paid by MHB,” Vaughn wrote. “Moreover, the scarcity of resources has led to the ending of employment of several MDE professionals and in light of the current funding climate, we are evaluating if additional measures will be necessary prior to the end of this fiscal year.”
Records provided by the Personnel Board also indicated that while the number of employees has fallen by 16 percent since the end of 2009, the payroll has not gone down as much. For 2009 MHB carried a payroll of $6,852,928. By the end of last year that number dropped to $6,176,032, a bit less than a 10 percent decrease.
Dees has not answered questions as to whether the Personnel Board is concerned by the Housing Board seeming shift away from merit system employees. Some former Housing Board employees now work for MDE and Vaughn says there are currently MDE employees who supervise Housing Board employees. MDE is operated out of Housing Board offices.
Lagniappe has been able to verify that the IRS did indeed reinstate MDE’s tax-exempt status a few months ago, as well as Vaughn’s claims MDE has been granted a waiver from providing annual 990 forms to the government. This also will mean the public will not be in a position to view the company’s annual financial status. Under the law, Form 990s must be made public.
The forms provided to Lagniappe were part of MDE’s application for reinstatement of its tax-exempt status and Vaughn gave them up despite not legally having to do so. He said he did so because he had promised to in earlier conversations with this reporter.
Mayor Sam Jones has avoided comment on the employment changes at the Housing Board, despite the fact he appoints the members of its five-person board tasked with overseeing MHB and also MDE.
Jones offered a spirited defense of the merit system during a recent mayoral debate, talking about its importance in protecting civil servants, but efforts to get a comment from him about the seesawing numbers at MHB and MDE garnered only a message from his spokesperson Barbara Drummond saying Jones was out of town.
Vaughn is listed on MDE’s incorporation papers as its director, while Housing Board Chairman Clarence Ball and Vice Chairman Donald Langham hold the same positions with MDE. Attempts to reach Ball and Langham to ask about the employment changes in the two entities were also unsuccessful. Lagniappe was able to reach Ruby Lang, who is the citywide residents’ council representative on the board. Lang said she has been ill and was not entirely aware of issues going on with MDE and MHB. She has served on the board since 1999, she said.
Though Housing Board members serve five-year terms, they all have served for many years. Besides Lang, both Ball and Langham were on the board before Jones took office in 2005. Lagniappe has not been able to determine exactly when each started on the board. A request made to the mayor’s office to determine how long each member has served and when each was last appointed went unanswered prior to deadline. A search of both news stories and City Council agendas failed to turn up any evidence Jones has reappointed any of the board members. Vaughn also did not provide an exact time each member has been on the board.
“The Mobile Housing Board is privileged to have an experienced Board of Commissioners to help the agency navigate through these extremely precarious and difficult financial times caused by historically low funding levels and federal sequestration. Each of the members has served in excess of two five-year terms,” Vaughn said.
Currently one position on the board sits empty. Tony Cooper left the board in 2012. His position has not been filled by the mayor, and Cooper said he had no knowledge of what is happening with the Housing Board or MDE.