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Andrew Cuomo’s tenure as secretary of housing and urban development has been focused on revamping the troubled agency and making it more visible, more powerful and more respected. He has spent considerable energy trying to leave his imprint on the 9,100-employee Department of Housing and Urban Development. And much of that energy has been concentrated on the Community Builders program, a sort of urban Peace Corps of facilitators and customer relations personnel, charged with helping needy communities find new HUD funding. But now, as Cuomo prepares to engage in what may be his final budget fight as HUD secretary, the program that forms the cornerstone of his legacy is in danger, caught in the continual struggle between Cuomo, congressional Republicans and the agency’s inspector general. Congress chipped away at Community Builders last year by eliminating its highly touted fellowship program, which gave agency newcomers a two-year temporary job at the agency. The program ends on Sept. 1. Now, some in Congress are eyeing another component of the program, which employs more than 700 civil service personnel. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., as chairman of the subcommittee that controls HUD’s purse strings, led the charge to eliminate the fellowships last year. Since then, the agency has hired more than 200 people formerly working under the fellowship program as permanent civil service employees. Bond is not happy with those hires and sees them as an end run around Congress’ intention to rein in the program. “I think this requires further study,” says Bond, who said he would address his problems with HUD next month when the Senate takes up the agency’s appropriations bill.” This doesn’t appear to be a good faith compliance with the agreement we worked out last year.” Put more bluntly: “The secretary is giving the finger to Senator Bond,” according to Irene Facha, regional vice president for the HUD Council of Local 222. GROWING INTERESTS Controversy is nothing new for Community Builders. In both good and bad ways, it has always been linked with Cuomo’s attempts to create a more hard-charging, expansive HUD agency. The program grew out of a 1994 National Academy of Public Administrators’ critique of the agency and its recommendation to create outreach positions. When Cuomo took charge of HUD, he turned that suggestion into Community Builders and made it an integral component of his overhaul of the agency. Not only would Community Builders make the agency more effective, but also it would let communities know how effective HUD was on their behalf. “Remember when they said, ‘Maybe we should eliminate HUD?’ ” Cuomo asked a HUD meeting in 1999. “ How many people showed up in the lobby of your building to protest the closing of HUD? They were nowhere to be found. Why? Because we hadn’t cultivated the relationships.” Under Cuomo’s reorganization, all HUD employees are either “public trust officers” or Community Builders. The officers do the traditional HUD work — the paperwork and case management for the agency’s programs. The builders are facilitators, or point people, there to cut through bureaucratic red tape. And there are two types of builders — seniors, who are career HUD employees, and fellows, who are new to the agency. Before the reorganization, the fellows were to serve two-year terms, then cycle back into the private sector. The program was intended to make HUD more responsive to community needs and to help it better serve communities. And the agency and supporters say it has accomplished that. “The Community Builders program is one that can look at the big picture,” says Jeffrey Freiser, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition. “They were the friendly ear to be called on when you didn’t know where else to go.” But for all its supporters, Community Builders has attracted as many critics. “The concept is good, the implementation is bad,” says Denise Muha, executive director of the National Leased Housing Association, which represents groups, developers and public housing authorities in the multifamily rental housing industry. The program is hated by the union, the GOP and the Office of Inspector General. In their eyes, it is a little more than a Cuomo mouthpiece. “He is getting a nationwide public relations department that gets out his view of things. He has a giant megaphone,” says Michael Beard, district inspector general for audits in the Inspector General’s Southwest District, who reviewed the program last year. The Office of Inspector General, led by Susan Gaffney, has been harshly critical of Cuomo and his agency. The audit concluded that the agency violated government hiring procedures for the fellowship program and that the program may have run afoul of a law banning the use of agency resources to lobby on legislation. The report recommended dismantling the program. “He hasn’t used them for their original intent,” says Facha, the union leader. “You can’t have people doing outreach who know nothing about the programs.” The union has also complained about how much more Community Builders were paid, for what appeared to be less experience. Most of the Community Builders were hired at the top two government pay grades, according to the audit. Most HUD employees are in lower pay categories. The union and the inspector general complained to the Office of Special Counsel, alleging improper hiring and lobbying, and violations of the Hatch Act, which bans political activity by on-duty government employees. The Office of Special Counsel acknowledged that there is an investigation, but declined further comment. The Government Accounting Office released a report last week saying it found no evidence to support one of the inspector general’s complaints of lobbying at the agency. The question now is whether Cuomo followed Congress’ mandate last year to dismantle the program. Last budget cycle, HUD and the GOP tussled over elimination of Community Builders. LOSS OF FELLOWSHIP The two sides emerged with an agreement that ended the fellowship program, composed of roughly 400 temporary employees. It was seen as a good compromise — many of the complaints about the program had been directed at the fellowships. With only those positions eliminated, HUD could still keep a staff of permanent customer relations personnel on board. Congress explicitly banned the agency from converting fellows into civil servants, but said former fellows could apply for future, permanent jobs. HUD says that is exactly what the agency has done. The agency opened up several hundred new permanent Community Builder positions as part of a hiring increase this year. Fellows were allowed to apply, but the positions were filled competitively, using standard hiring practices, according to the agency. Of the 350 Community Builders whom the agency hired, 218 of them were former fellows. “As far as most of us are concerned on this side of the street, the issue has been resolved,” says HUD spokesman Leland Jones. “We were told what the future of the Community Builders program would be, and we commenced last fall to move toward that future.” Bond is skeptical, saying that the high number of fellows offered permanent positions makes him uneasy. And the agency’s other critics — namely, its union and the Office of Inspector General — are just as unhappy with the new hires. The House already signed off on Cuomo’s revamp of the program, although there were concerns about the new internal hires. The early debate did not look good for the program. A version of the House appropriations bill specified that the program should be eliminated entirely by Oct. 1. But HUD was saved by a last minute intervention by Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y. With a floor amendment that passed June 20, Walsh changed the language, reiterating the elimination of the fellowship program, but allowing the addition of new permanent Community Builders positions, as long as they are filled with properly hired civil servants. “It was never our intention to eliminate the internal Community Builders program,” says a Walsh staff member. The staff member said the congressman was concerned about potential conversions of politically well-connected former fellows into permanent civil servants, but says the amendment’s language assures that the agency can’t do that. Yet HUD still has a long way to go. Agency officials have visited members of Congress, including Bond, to convince them that the agency has been above board in filling the positions. If Cuomo wins in the Senate appropriations process this fall, the refashioned Community Builders program stays intact and the agency will keep its customer-relations arm. Then again, the Community Builders program could face a far different future without Cuomo as its champion. “This issue will undoubtedly come back after this administration,” says Walsh’s staff member. “We will have to wait and see what the new political outlook is.”

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