New London Housing Authority shifts management to outside firm

New London — In a historic move, the Housing Authority board of commissioners on Tuesday approved a contract with an outside management firm with its own executive director to oversee operations.

It’s a move that the board expects to boost efficiency and improve conditions at the authority's five — soon to be four — state and federally subsidized properties. The authority currently is moving residents out of the long-troubled 124-unit Thames River Apartments.

The move to hire Imagineers LLC was an unopposed decision by three of five board members but did not come without controversy. Housing Authority staff aired frustrations over a toxic atmosphere among employees and an increased workload with the added stress of fearing they'd lose their jobs with the shift to Imagineers.

Residents were concerned about a future hike in rents.

Board Chairwoman Betsy Gibson said the move is not a privatization, and the board would maintain its authority over Imagineers going forward.

“The housing authority is still looking out for the residents,” Gibson said. “It’s always about the residents. With dwindling resources ... the concern is our ability to give them adequate, safe and sanitary conditions.”

Imagineers President Kenneth Schultz also tried to allay fears.

“There is no takeover of the New London Housing Authority. It would be us serving the New London Housing Authority,” Schultz said. “There is no agenda to somehow replace the current employees with other employees. That’s not what this is about.”

Instead, Schultz said his company has a wealth of resources and staff that could provide support in areas that include information technology, human resources, property management and maintenance among other areas.

Board member Kathleen Mitchell remained angered at what she said was the board’s lack of transparency. She accused members of pushing their own agenda and said the hiring of Imagineers appeared to be a predetermined outcome.

Mitchell left before a closed-door meeting about the Imagineers contract and was not present for the vote. Outgoing board member Jeanette Parker abstained.

Susette Kelo, who lost her home and became the leading figure against the use of eminent domain by the city in a court battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Housing Authority residents appeared to be in a position similar to hers 15 years ago.

Kelo said that during the fight to save her home — which became known as the little pink house — she and neighbors could not bring themselves to speak to officials in New London and “not one of them ever asked us what we thought or how we felt nor did they ever listen or try to talk to us.”

Kelo was present at the request of Mitchell, who during the eminent domain fight had read letters to the City Council from residents losing their homes.

“This board is continuing the tradition of not asking, not listening, not caring because you have your own agenda. Some things in New London never change,” Kelo said to applause from the crowd gathered at the authority's federally subsidized Williams Park Apartments at 127 Hempstead St.

Imagineers is expected to begin work in New London by March 15, with some overlap with interim Executive Director Lee Erdmann during the transition.

The cost of bringing in Imagineers amounts to $195,000 annually — $90,000 for management and $105,000 to pay for an executive director.

Erdmann said the authority had budgeted $125,000 for an executive director position. Imagineers also will provide accounting services and allow the authority to end a $46,000 annual payment to an outside vendor for those services. Additionally, an employee earning about $70,000 annually plans to leave this summer and that position will not be replaced.

The Housing Authority currently has 18 employees.

Schultz said Imagineers has hired East Lyme native Kolisha Fiore as its new executive director. Fiore most recently was employed by Reliant Real Estate Services LLC.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's note: This version of the story clarifies the cost of management and a new executive director.

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