A veteran U.S. senator known for launching investigations into the possible misuse of federal funds is probing what he called “exorbitant” salaries at the Atlanta Housing Authority.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development demanding information about pay and other perks at the Atlanta agency that provides housing for the city’s poor.
The move came in response to an April 3 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showing that 22 employees — or 10 percent of the authority’s workforce — earned more than $150,000 in salaries and performance bonuses in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. Nearly 20 percent earned more than $100,000, the AJC revealed. Grassley said he was “shocked” by the figures.
In a statement Monday, AHA spokesman Rick White said the department looks forward to responding to Grassley’s concerns “because we firmly believe our approach is the right approach (and) we’re spending fewer dollars and getting better outcomes.”
The exclusive AJC analysis compared the housing agency’s salaries to those at several other large public housing authorities around the nation. Atlanta’s stood out. Nationally, only 3 percent of all housing authority employees earned more than $155,000 in 2010, according to HUD data.
In a wide-ranging interview in April, Housing Authority Chief Executive Officer Renee Glover defended the pay, saying the AHA has transformed itself into a successful, nationally recognized housing model. She said the agency’s approach is unique and requires specialized management skills not needed in other agencies.
“We can’t attract and retain the talent that we need if we pay below the market, it’s just that simple,” Glover said at the time. Glover has been lauded for leading the way to tear down public housing units and replacing them with public-private apartments.
But Grassley noted in his letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan that the authority “must answer to the taxpayers, not the market.”
“While I appreciate that Ms. Glover believes the only way to get and retain top quality personnel is to pay competitive salaries, I am much more concerned that taxpayer dollars are being spent on on exorbitant salaries for public officials when this money should instead be spent on the programs themselves,” Grassley wrote. Grassley, a senator first elected in 1980, has in recent years demanded investigations into preachers, pharmaceutical companies, stimulus spending and public housing departments.
In the statement released Monday, White wrote that over the past two decades the AHA has cut the number of employees from about 1,400 to fewer than 250 while using “public-private partnerships” to expand the scope of services.
“Spending smartly to deliver against our strategy requires highly-skilled employees who understand how to achieve outstanding outcomes,” he said. “These employees are found predominantly in the private sector. Consequently, we have to offer competitive salaries to attract and retain the needed skills. We’re getting more for less.”
Glover’s salary has stoked criticism for for years. In 2010, federal data show, she received $644,000, making her the highest-paid public housing official in the nation that year. Glover argued that the total was closer to $588,000 and called it an aberration, because it included unused vacation and sick days as well as deferred compensation and performance bonuses.
In fiscal 2012, Glover’s salary was $325,000, the most recent records show; she did not receive a bonus. One of her top deputies got more than $300,000, and another eight AHA employees earned more than $200,000. Their compensation included performance-based bonuses of up to $53,500, something the senator noted in his letter.
“The AHA has given these 21 employees (making more than $150,000) very lofty titles to go with the exorbitant salaries,” Grassely wrote in his letter. “These include six chiefs, two senior vice presidents, ten vice presidents, two directors and one senior assistant general counsel. One AHA employee holds the title of General Counsel and Chief Legal Officer while three additional employees hold the title of Vice President and Managing General Counsel.”
The AHA salaries top those paid to some of Georgia’s top elected officials. Gov. Nathan Deal earns $139,000 and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, $147,500.
In the past, Reed has taken issue with Glover’s salary and five-year contract extension, which started 2010. But the AHA board has not been able to work out a suitable deal for her to leave.
In addition to requesting more data on salaries, Grassley also sought information on travel expenses, consulting fees and take-home vehicles issued to AHA staff.
“HUD provides billions of federal tax dollars to the housing authorities but in some demonstrated cases, has not paid adequate attention to how the money is spent, which has led to spending abuses and leadership problems at several housing authorities across the country,” Grassley spokeswoman Jill Gerber said.
Pay at public housing authorities emerged as a national issue last year, when HUD announced a $155,500 cap on what the federal government would pay. Local housing authorities may pay more than that, but they have to use other funds.
Glover, in an email written in April, argued that the reforms she brought to the AHA “have changed the trajectory and opportunity for thousands of families, our communities and our beloved City of Atlanta.”
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