County board discusses handling of the Section 8 Voucher Program

By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor

Wanting to know where their money is being spent, the Houston County Board took about 15 minutes to discuss past, present and future practices of the Southeastern Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA) last week. SEMMCHRA is based in Wabasha.

SEMMCHRA had recently requested additional funding from the county for administrative costs to operate the Section 8 income-based housing assistance program in Houston County.

Bluff County HRA President Tom Falbo attended the Jan. 17 board meeting and informed the commissioners that at least four counties that SEMMCHRA serves have voiced disapproval with the authority’s handling of the Section 8 program, specifically the lack of any reporting. Falbo added that these counties are interested in having Semcac, based in Rushford, take over the Section 8 Voucher Program.

During the discussion, board members agreed that they could not name the last time anyone from SEMMCHRA had ever attended a county board meeting to report to the commissioners on activities being conducted in the county.

“The difference in the transparency between Semcac and SEMMCHRA is huge,” Falbo said. “I feel Houston County needs to take a look at this. I’m not asking you to make a decision today. But I would encourage you to look into it.”

County Commissioner Teresa Walter said she has discussed the issue with officials of other counties who are interested in this movement. “I feel we need to sit down and discuss this further with other counties,” Walter said.

“We’ve only heard from SEMMCHRA once in the seven years I’ve been on the board,” Commissioner Tom Bjerke said. “And that was when they wanted more money.”

A motion made by Walter and seconded by Bjerke to meet with Bluff Country HRA, Semcac officials and representatives of the six other counties in SE Minnesota that Semcac serves to discuss the Section 8 Voucher Program was unanimously approved.

Semcac presentation

Prior to the discussion about the Section 8 Voucher Program, Semcac Executive Director Wayne Stenberg gave an update on the 2011 activities his organization provided for county residents.

• Senior nutrition- This program provided 23,790 hot, nutritious meals served in a congregate setting to 687 Houston County seniors. The program also provided 9,886 home-delivered meals to 81 senior citizens in the county.

The senior congregate dining sites are located in Eitzen, Caledonia, Houston, La Crescent and Spring Grove. Meals on Wheels are available in Eitzen, Hokah, Houston, La Crescent and Spring Grove.

• Senior and caregiver advocacy-  Provided services to maintain safe and independent living for seniors and adults with disabilities. A total of 19 caregivers and 638 care recipients received individual assistance through this program.

• Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)- This program encourages seniors to stay active in their communities, while helping non-profit agencies more efficiently serve their clients. RSVP participants provided 5,385 volunteer hours in Houston County in 2011.

• Semcac Transportation- The program provided 24,753 rides on Semcac’s buses and 3,800 rides by 27 volunteer drivers for persons needing transportation for medical visits.

• Energy Assistance Program- There were 740 Houston County households that received assistance with their utility payments during the past heating season. Stenberg noted that Semcac will have to handle a 25 percent decrease in the funding of this program by the federal government in 2012.

• Weatherization and Housing Program- There were 82 county households that received weatherization updates and energy conservation education in 2011.

Twenty-seven households received energy related repairs and nine homes are scheduled for rehab projects under the Small Cities Program in Caledonia, Houston and Spring Grove in 2012.

• Head Start program- A total of 44 Houston County children and their families participated in the head Start centers in Caledonia, Hokah and Houston last year.

• Family Planning- Sixty-three county residents received medical exams, contraceptive counseling and birth control through this program at Semcac’s Family Planning Clinic in Winona.

• Outreach and Emergency Services- This program helped support people experiencing financial crisis in their lives. Twenty-nine households received crisis financial assistance, 33 households were assisted with monthly budgeting or financial literacy education, 49 households were give donated articles and 283 households received holiday gifts for their children.

• Semcac Food Shelf- There were 300 county households, comprised of 840 persons that made 1,729 visits to the Semcac Food Shelf in 2011.

“We appreciate the help that Houston County provides for us,” Stenberg told the board. “We feel we are able to provide the citizens of Houston County with many services that help improve their lives. We are always available to answer any questions you might have about any of our programs.”

You can contact Charlie Warner at [email protected]