(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
Commissioners will institute auditor recommendations as soon as possible…
The Washington State Auditor’s office released a report last week saying that Stevens County did not have an adequate application and approval process for its dispersal of $121,000 in homelessness funds between 2015 and 2019.
The Stevens County Board of Commissioners have stated that they believe that the money they provided in direct assistance to people was consistent with statewide guidelines and its own homelessness plan. The county commissioners disputed the auditor’s stance that there was an inadequate approval process for the Homeless Housing and Assistance Program. In both uses of funds, the commissioner said in their response the intended uses were for the support of the poor and the infirm. After the state auditor’s office did provide three recommendations, the commissioners office said they intend on instituting those as quickly as possible moving forward.
The funds in question involve $30,326 given to help a family move their house from an eroding riverbank in 2018. The other includes $90,893 for a multi-family transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries and their families. The auditor’s office recommended that the county establish a process and criteria for application and approval of direct homelessness funding, consult with legal counsel before approving extraordinary or unusual expenditures of the homelessness fund and to ensure all homelessness expenditures are specifically allowed by its homeless housing plan or revise the plan’s eligible activities.
The auditor’s office said that the funds for the riverbank erosion payment did not fall within the homeless housing plan as it only allows for minor repairs and alterations for single-family, owner-occupied housing, and the owners requests did not fall within the plan’s allowed activities, therefore making it an unallowable gift of public funds.
The commissioners contend that since the house was slowly caving into the river, it was deemed uninhabitable and needed to moved otherwise the family there would become homeless. The family did not have insurance to cover the expenses of moving the house and digging a new foundation, nor were they considered in a flood plain despite the Kettle River cutting away at the bank. They also cited that the ecological cleanup would have been much more than the cost of moving the house had it crashed into the river.
In regards to the $90,893 for multi-family housing, the state auditor’s office said that while governments can pay non-profit organizations for sevices rendered, the Washington State Constitution prohibits governments from gifting funds unless it is to the “poor and infirm.” Non-profits do not meet the definition of “poor and infirm.”
The commissioners said that people who suffer from spinal injuries can generally not return to their homes as they are wheelchair bound and most homes do not accommodate this type of living situation. The spokesperson who lives there mentors and helps others to cope with their spinal injuries until their housing is built or altered.
In response to the recommendations by the auditor’s office, the commissioners contented there is no requirement in law or rule for the country to adapt an application process.
“Although the county can adopt an application process, there are inherent roadblocks to doing so that can severely and negatively impact the effectiveness of our program which is currently rated by the Department of Commerce as effective in reducing homelessness.”
The county also cites that the application process would mean they would have to collect sensitive information from homeless individuals, contending it would severely limit the ability of the county to collect and share information on any formal or written application for funding in order to remain consistent with RCW and state law regarding public disclosure.
They also contended that despite a lack of an approval process, use of homelessness funding is conducted in open, public meetings with multiple questions asked before the money is used.
Stevens County Commissioners also contended there was no legal or accounting principle that mandated that they establish written guidelines for the homelessness fund.
“Every request is reviewed to ensure it meets the definition of homeless or the prevention of persons from becoming homeless,” the commissioners response to the auditor read.
The commissioners also contended on the third recommendation that is it unusual and inappropriate to send spending requests to the county prosecutor for determination. They also added they did put the Homeless Housing plan through legal review for consistency with the law.
“The plan was sent to legal counsel to review prior to approval and is standard practice,” the commissioners response to the auditor read. “ There may be no documentation for this as county legal counsel commonly does not respond in writing.”
The commissioners also said that they self-reported to the state auditor the issues concerning the homelessness fund seeking advice and guidance on the matter.
“Even if we disagree with facts and conditions, it is the intent of the Board of County Commissioners and Stevens County to take actions to institute the State Auditor recommendations at the earliest possible time,” the commissioners said in the report.
The state auditor’s office thanked the county staff and management for their cooperation and assistance during the audit.