Consultant to study top-level pay at Atlanta Housing Authority as feds crack down

Fifteen other Atlanta Housing Authority employees besides longtime chief executive Renee Glover fall under a crackdown on use of federal dollars to pay housing executives more than $155,500 per year.

The names, salaries and positions of the 15 staffers were not available Wednesday, when the board of AHA, one of the largest public agencies in Georgia, decided to ask consulting firm Aon Hewitt to study its pay structure and compare it with comparable housing agencies. It is not clear how much the study, which is in response to the federal crackdown, will cost.

"We need to make sure the salaries are in line with the services provided," said Daniel Halpern, chairman of the agency's board of commissioners. "There is a responsibility ... to look into this, and at the end of the day, be good stewards."

Nationwide, only about 3 percent of public housing executives collected more than $155,500 in total cash compensation in 2o10, according to federal data. But that study included hundreds of housing agencies smaller than Atlanta's.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development already has cracked down on salaries at public housing agencies, but it wants to get even tougher.

Right now, HUD dollars for Section 8 and Section 9 housing cannot be used to pay a staffer's salary above $155,500, according to rules that went into effect on March 17 and run until the end of each housing agency's fiscal year. In the AHA's case, that's June 30. HUD wants to make the limits permanent.

Technically, it's not a pay cap. Other nonprohibited cash can be used to pay salaries and make up the difference.

AHA, which has about 230 employees overall, is using other federal money -- development and administrative fees  --  to bridge the gap between $155,500 and the 16 staffers' actual salaries. That gap that would stretch to $750,000 over the course of a year, according to the agency's finance team.

But HUD said its latest proposed rules, which would take effect for AHA July 1, would close a loophole by applying to all cash compensation, including bonuses. The current rules apply only to salaries. The new rules would prevent any federal money from being used to pay executives at public housing agencies more than $155,500.

Glover became the focal point of the compensation issue earlier this month when HUD's new proposed rules hit the news. She collects a $325,000 annual salary, based on a five-year contract that took effect in July 2010. That's more than twice what federal officials now recommend as total compensation.

Glover, who came to the AHA in 1994 in a period of tumult, reaped national acclaim for her work in tearing down some of the city's most squalid public housing projects and replacing them with mixed-income developments. That strategy had its critics, but the "Atlanta model" attracted applause in Atlanta and elsewhere.

The AHA owns 11 high-rise buildings and two smaller properties. It is also the co-developer of 16 master-planned mixed-income communities; administers the subsidization of the rents at more than 70 privately owned housing communities; and provides rental assistance to another 10,000 families in the metro Atlanta region.

The federal government contributes about 80 percent of the housing authority's annual budget, which is $265 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The agency could try to find other, nonfederal sources of funding for Glover and the 15 other staffers, but that might be tough.

"There are only a couple of areas where we really can squeeze more," Halpern said. "We really need to see where we're headed the next five years."

Reports earlier this month indicated that Glover, who sits on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank and other high-powered entities, was the country's highest-paid public housing official in 2010, with total compensation of about $644,000. She said those numbers -- which she tallied as closer to $588,000 -- were misleading, since they were inflated by deferred compensation for unused vacation and sick days, as well as performance bonuses.

On Wednesday, Glover said she supported a benchmarking study.

"Salaries are one of those things where you can put it up in the abstract and say, ‘Gee, that sounds high,'" she said. "But you have to ask, what are the core competencies?"

Cecil Phillips, an AHA board member and past chairman, said the new HUD rules were ill-conceived.

"You could have the best business plan in the world, but you need the people," he said. "We been able to attract first-quality people because we've been able to pay them commensurately."

However, in a memo this month, HUD officials said they were "determined to take aggressive additional measures to promote the responsible and efficient use of federal funds."

"We want to work with Congress to put in place this permanent solution," the memo said. "But we will not wait if Congress fails to act."

The Republican-run U.S. House, in a spending bill for next year, includes a salary cap at the same level for any public housing authority employee, while the Democratic U.S. Senate version does not.

Both bills await floor votes.

For now, members of the AHA board -- with two of six having been appointed by Mayor Kasim Reed, who was critical of Glover's contract last year -- are not saying much except that they want the agency's compensation to be comparable to other agencies.

"We want to make sure we're in line with federal guidelines," Halpern said. "We also want to make sure we're attracting the best and brightest."

Staff writer Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.