Thursday, January 26, 2012

Maine Housing: playing the game artfully

You may remember that we touched on ‘focused’ public service spending at the Maine State Housing Authority in this post of last week.

Don’t feel embarrassed if you can’t remember.  We’ve been consumed by other matters in recent days as well, and have been less than diligent in posting compelling items.  Perhaps you’ve had withdrawal symptoms.

Before we get to the point of this post, here’s the descriptor that MSHA appends to their press releases:

MaineHousing, a quasi-governmental agency, is a $1.6 billion financial institution that serves 90,000 people annually and infuses approximately $1.2 million into Maine’s economy daily.

In other words, one out of fourteen residents of Maine are served by MSHA, and roughly $440 million is ‘infused’ into our state economy annually in the process.  That’s more than $4,800 per person ‘served,’ or $400 per month.  And $440 million means $330 plus for each and every resident of Maine is distributed annually.

Clearly, we aren’t talking about peanuts.  Maine’s general fund spending is in the vicinity of $3 billion per  year. The source of MSHA’s funds are unclear in the specifics, but there can be no doubt they all come from taxpayers.  Which means they are dollars compelled by the force of law, whether or not you see their efforts as charitable.

Now to our main point.  On January 17th, just last week, Maine Wire published the item referenced above, which linked to a 565 page file MSHA provided in response to a Freedom of Access request from MHPC.  It took more than 6 months for MSHA to provide this info, and MHPC paid $800 for the labor involved in compiling it. 

As you can tell if you looked at the list, it consists only of names and addresses of ‘vendors’ used by MSHA, with no dates, number, or amounts of payments. did exactly what any requestor of such info would do, and what MSHA should have expected they would do.  It asked why MSHA would be making payments to Funtown-Splashtown and other vendors not clearly involved in their mission of providing housing for those who cannot afford it on their own.  Seems reasonable enough to raise the questions, especially since MSHA is spending other peoples’ money to help the needy.

MSHA told MHPC that it would take a huge effort to deliver all the details (dates and amounts) of payments to the vendors on the 565 page list.

Strangely enough, the day after the the Maine Wire article appeared, other media outlets had details of dates and amounts for a number of MSHA expenditures, and published them to suggest that MHPC had made a mountain out of a mole-hill, and even worse, conducted an ‘invasion into a public officials personal life.’ 

The biggest point here is that while MSHA could not provide details of transactions to MHPC in response to their formal request, they were able to come up with numerous such details for other media personnel in a matter of hours, presumably because it would explain some of the legitimate questions raised by the vendor list disclosure.  They distributed the details to a long list of media contacts, including a “Progressive News Source” blog, but not to MHPC, which formally requested the data to begin with.

We’ll leave it to you to decide whether MSHA intentionally gamed the system, making partial disclosure months after data was requested, and then providing clarifying details to others the day after the  Maine Wire article appeared.

One thing is sure.  The ‘media outlets’ that got the clarifying details from MSHA owe a debt of gratitude to MHPC.

There’s no way any of them would have looked into MSHA operations and finances unless MHPC first raised the issue.  They’re all too lazy, and cozy with the entrenched 40 year aristocracy to do so.

And they sure as hell don’t want to risk their access to the movers and shakers.

Government watchdogs?  Don’t make me laugh.

Or worse.

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