HANO boss resists push to open public housing to more ex-convicts

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New HANO (Housing Authority of New Orleans) CEO Gregg Fortner stands near his office in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, July 23, 2014. He is the first leader of the organization since it was released earlier this month from 12 years under federal control.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans will cut positions and pull $864,000 from its surplus to balance a $194 million budget next fiscal year, continuing a three-year trend of belt-tightening and dipping into reserves to stay afloat.

The agency's 2018 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The surplus drawdown, approved by the authority’s board Thursday, comes seven months after Executive Director Gregg Fortner laid off as many as 18 employees in a move he said would help the agency avoid future siphoning from its reserves.

But it also comes as HANO’s 2018 revenue has been slashed by roughly a tenth, or $23 million, over the past year. Its annual income is down by more than a third since 2012, when the budget stood at $311 million.

Just making ends meet in 2018 will require yet another restructuring, though most changes will affect positions that already are vacant, Fortner said. He could not immediately provide the total number of eliminated positions.

While acknowledging the dim financial picture, Fortner also said the agency was able to shore up its surplus this year by $10.7 million, after being repaid certain loans and tax credit equity connected to housing projects.

The reserve now stands at more than $20 million.

HANO, like many public housing agencies across the country, has weathered reduced payouts from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in recent years.

“As we dip into reserves again to balance out our operations, even with the decrease in operating subsidies from HUD, we contributed a lot more in reserves than we are actually taking out of it,” Fortner said.

While President Donald Trump earlier this year proposed even steeper cuts to the federal agency's budget for 2018, that proposal was rejected by two congressional committees in favor of a gentler trimming of the HUD budget.

Such cuts have forced local housing authorities to make tough decisions.

HANO has cut its staff by about a quarter in the past few years, going from 287 employees in 2014 to as few as 208 last year. And it pulled $1.9 million from its reserves last year after withdrawing $4.3 million the year before that. 

This fiscal year, the agency is leaving some positions unfilled, though Former could not say how many. Those include deputy directors in certain departments. 

Fortner said two employees left as a result of the latest restructuring, which, along with other cost-cutting moves, saved the agency roughly $2 million. 

“It’s fewer resources, so we have to adjust,” Fortner said. “We know what we are going to get, and we have to work within that budget.”

He added that this year's raid on the surplus is less than last year’s transfer of $1.9 million. The surplus, moreover, has been bolstered by loan repayments and tax credit equity connected to the transformation of the former B.W. Cooper and Fischer housing complexes, Fortner added.

Those deposits have brought the surplus to more than $20 million, up from $15.6 million at this time last year.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.