WOONSOCKET – In her first official meeting as acting executive director of the Woonsocket Housing Authority, Vasiliki Milios, the new top official of the public housing agency, warned that years of deferred maintenance at WHA properties could lead to a flurry of spending over the next six to 12 months.
In a presentation to the Board of Commissioners last Thursday, Nov. 18, Milios described the agency as “cash rich” but said previous administrators had been slow to spend federal funds on needed projects. Those funds are provided to the agency in the form of capital and lead abatement grants for maintenance at the organization’s six housing developments.
“I truly feel that we’ve procrastinated on obligating and spending. I just don’t feel that we’re giving back as much as we should be. To the community, to the buildings,” she said.
Of the $11,150,920 in federal funds budgeted for projects since 2018, she said, only $1,943,707 has been spent by the agency. Another $2,779,903 is obligated for signed contracts, bringing the total amount of funds committed to budgeted projects to 42 percent.
Milios said she learned of the unspent federal funds while doing a deep dive into the agency’s operations after she was appointed acting executive director last month. She said the agency has been slow to obligate and spend capital funds, a trend likely related to issues she’s heard about from residents.
“The observations are based on actual data, and I can support it with actual documentation. These are not ‘I think,’ these are actual observations that were made,” she said.
Milios said she spent the past two weeks identifying high-risk projects with WHA Lead Working Foreman Mike Piedmonte. Among the top concerns, she said, are repairs to the façade at Morin Heights, an estimated $3 million project, and the replacement of boilers and the domestic hot water system at the same complex for $2.3 million.
“If we have a hard winter, what are we going to do with these people? Let them fend for themselves?” she said.
Milios said the agency is currently running a surplus, but money is not getting spent fast enough. She estimated it could take several million dollars for the WHA to catch up on items not addressed in past years.
“I think we’ve forgone a lot of work. We are cash rich, but I have a fear that what we’re going to see coming is an avalanche of fixes. We can’t do Band-Aids anymore. The time for Band-Aids is gone. We need fixes,” she said.
While the majority of funds identified by Milios have not yet been spent or obligated on contracts, all of them were previously budgeted by the WHA for maintenance projects, according to a document distributed to board members last week. The largest item on the list is elevator upgrades at the city’s senior housing complexes. According to the document, the agency previously reserved $4,747,800 in unspent funds for elevator upgrades at Parkview Manor, Kennedy Manor, Crepeau Court and St. Germain Manor.
Other projects listed as “planned activity” in the document include lead abatement, paving and improvements to smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
Milios identified several other concerns at the housing agency, including an outdated disaster recovery plan, the lack of a succession plan among employees and a large number of unused Section 8 housing vouchers. She recommended revisiting the agency’s preference points for housing applicants and updating its internal policies.
The board appointed Milios acting executive director on Oct. 28 after placing the WHA’s previous director, Robert Moreau, on administrative leave the previous week. Moreau, along with Human Resources Director and Executive Secretary Katrina Lapierre and Security Director Roger Biron, are currently under an investigation that Moreau has stated he believes is related to alleged overspending on a security contract. The board launched the investigation behind closed doors in October and hired the firm Whelan, Flanders & Corrente to conduct the investigation.
In comments to The Breeze last week, Moreau contested Milios’ assertions and defended his handling of WHA maintenance projects over the past few years. Moreau said he prioritizes projects based on life, health and safety concerns and had already listed the agency’s priorities in a five-year plan approved by the Board of Commissioners in June.
“That plan, coincidentally, is the exact projects that were mentioned at last night’s meeting,” he said on Friday. “There was no new revelation, there was no ‘nobody knew about these projects.’ It was all in the five-year plan of projects we intend to get to.”
Moreau said much of the capital funding over the next few years will be spent on the elevator project. The WHA receives approximately $3.1 million in federal capital funding each year, he said, and has to reserve it for projects of highest concern.
“As we’re chipping away at the five-year plan for the stuff that was mentioned last night, there’s only so much of this $3.1 million that can only go so far,” he said.
Board member Steven D’Agostino took a cautious approach to the matter, pointing out during the meeting that many of the items identified by Milios were major fixes that would take years to fully address. He recommended the agency focus on “putting out fires” and get a second opinion before moving forward with some of the projects.
“I think to be totally honest with the public, with the board, with everyone, these are aging buildings. It would take a half a billion dollars to get these buildings where they need to be,” he said.
Milios said the agency needs to create a timeline of upcoming high-risk projects.
With regard to the investigation, Moreau said he had not yet been contacted by an investigator as of last Friday. Robert Corrente confirmed to The Breeze on Monday the investigation is still ongoing and likely to continue for another 60 to 90 days.
“It’s an ongoing active investigation, and until we complete the investigation and have a final product, we’re not going to comment on what we’re doing and what the details are, but we expect there’ll be an end product in the not too distant future,” he said.