Rescue Us: Where Did The Money Go???Share this story:
Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey is calling on the county auditor to investigate the rental assistance program being run by Baker Ripley. Dolcefino Consulting found some real questionable payments in neighborhoods that shouldn’t have qualified for any money, and Lina Hidalgo’s administration has fought us from getting to the truth!
It was the moment most of us knew Lina Hidalgo was “losing it”, unless of course you are investigative reporters at the Houston Chronicle.
They set out to try and blame the woman Hidalgo was freaking out about.
District Attorney Kim Ogg. “Don’t cross her,” the headlines blared.
The chronicle story was nonsense.
Sure, Ogg investigated the African art nonsense brought to taxpayers by commissioner Rodney Ellis.
Storing 1000 pieces of some other guy’s art for free in a county building you paid to fix up after the art arrived.
And she busted Lina Hidalgo’s employees for allegedly steering a COVID contract.
The taxpayers got stuck with nearly a million bucks in legal bills, but the Chronicle seems to blame Ogg for that. Even though it’s her job to investigate public corruption.
Instead of blaming the two public officials whose office shenanigans got us here in the first place.
Maybe when Hidalgo comes back she will use her new found mental health to end the historic veil of secrecy she’s placed over the spending of your tax money.
But we doubt it.
It’s not just election day records that Lina and the downtown crew are hiding from you. They are also hiding key details on how they are spending nine hundred million dollars of your federal tax dollars, that Harris county got out of the American Rescue Plan.
The last big covid bailout was the Cares Act, remember that?
And the money to help people pay rent went pouring out.
“We need to have greater oversight to see where the money has gone. We need to have oversight to see if it’s overspent spent how to get it back,” said former commissioner Jack Cagle.
And a lot of it went to Baker Ripley. Since the COVID money went flowing they have been paid 160 million dollars.
The Baker Ripley boss Claudia Aguirre, she got a big pay raise. Her salary up more than forty percent since COVID struck.
But there were early signs of trouble about how Baker Ripley was spending our money.
When Harris County paid a company called Guidehouse to audit the first payments to Baker Ripley for rental assistance, one county official called the results pathetic.
You name it, there were overpayments of to landlords, payments for months not owed.
The Harris County auditor reported there were 864,511 dollars in overpayments. Only half had been recovered.
Baker Ripley did not bother to check 562 times where tenants didn’t qualify for help because they already had other government assistance. Totaling 531,505, another half a million.
In Fort Bend county two landlords were busted for allegedly filing applications for rental assistance without the tenants even knowing they did it.
You’d think in the eighteen months since that news broke about Baker Ripley that there would be far greater scrutiny of the way they’re spending our tax money. But of course, this is the Hidalgo administration and you’d be wrong.
Since that audit Baker Ripley has been given another 140 million dollars of your money. And a lot of it is for rental assistance.
So we asked to see if the county even knew how many people had been helped by Baker Ripley from all this government money. First the Cares Act and now the American Rescue Plan.
The answer we got from the county was a big number, 18,899 households.
But we also asked to see who we helped, we got this excel spreadsheet.
It only showed the size of the household, the date and the amount paid.
The average amount handed out was 4,731.00, but we noticed some payments that were significantly higher. Much higher, look at this.
According to the counties own records. One family of four was given 47,700 dollars on September 15 of 2021. Just about two years ago. So, we wanted to know who they were.
We asked the county to tell us the top ten families and where they lived.
The county said no, claiming the names were confidential because they were disaster aid recipients. They asked the attorney general if they could keep it a secret last June.
I don’t mind helping people in need of emergency relief, but I do believe that if my money was used I should have to know exactly where it went. By the way, I’m not so sure I trust those Baker Ripley folks.
The attorney general ruled we couldn’t know the names or the specific address. But we could find out the names of the streets.
This is what we got from Harris County, and that’s why we came here.
This is Augusta Creek Court in Spring. Northwest Harris Count, it’s just two blocks long.
We can’t tell you in what house this lucky family of four lives, but we can tell you the homes on Augusta Creek aren’t exactly affordable.
According to HCAD they range between the low 400s and more than 600,000 dollars.
That’s weird. These renters, whoever they are, must be getting quite the deal because under the American Rescue Plan only people making 80% of the area medium income are eligible for assistance.
The household can’t make more than 60,000 dollars before taxes.
Someone on Arcadia Bend Lane got lucky too, $40,800 last November in rental assistance.
And there was a lucky recipient of 38,625 dollars on Crossfalls Lane.
But we couldn’t be the only people that noticed this, right?
I would like to think these folks did.
Boston Consulting was given a multimillion-dollar contract to oversee compliance with the American Rescue Plan. These are federal dollars we’re spending.
We have plenty of local accounting firms here in Houston but we had to go all the way to Boston for someone to monitor our money.
“When you live here and you work here and and you’ve got something, I think more invested than someone who doesn’t,” said Tom Ramsey.
As of July of this year, county vendor records show the company has been paid twelve million seven hundred thousand dollars, that should have bought a ton of compliance.
But when we asked to see the compliance reviews for Baker Ripley, they tried to hide them.
The Attorney General said turn them over, and so far the county attorney hasn’t done it.
Maybe the AG will make us sue him again, because that’s a great use of your tax dollars. Don’t you think?
What’s even more frightening is that both the county purchasing agent and the county auditor; they’ve both been kept in the dark. That’s insane.
We are apparently trusting the county administrator Diana Ramirez to police herself.
“Ramirez will be the first woman and first Latina to hold the position for managing the operations of the third largest county in the United States,” said Leslie Briones.
It’s nice that Commissioner Briones is excited, a woman and a Hispanic. That’s a twofer in the search for equity in county government.
But we invite the newest commissioner to be excited instead about some damn accountability because we aren’t getting it with this bunch.
A fine example is when we, oh so politely, tried to talk to Ramirez before a recent commissioner’s court meeting. She had ignored our questions for weeks.
“Can we talk to you about the rental assistance funding issue,” asked Brian Collister.
“Not right now. We’re getting ready to go back to court,” replied Ramirez.
“Can we talk to you right after,” asked Collister.
“She’ll get with you later on,” replied the constable.
Excuse me since when are the constables in charge of helping another county official deal with the media? But I digress.
“During lunch break would that be possible,” asked Collister.
“I’ll have to check with staff but well check on it. Okay,” replied Ramirez.
“We’d just like to talk to you about how you know the ARPA funds are being spent properly,” concluded Collister.
So, we waited hours for another chance to chat.
“Diana can we coordinate a time to talk to you? We’ve trying to get answers for quite a while. That we- ma’am,” said Collister.
That was June 27. It’s been almost three months; we’re still waiting for answers.Keep up with us on social media: