Criticism of TJPDC over $500,000 grant mix-up continues

TJPDC director Steve Williams has come under fire for the organization's mishandling of a federal grant. Photo courtesy of Charlottesville Tomorrow. TJPDC director Steve Williams has come under fire for the organization’s mishandling of a federal grant. Photo courtesy of Charlottesville Tomorrow.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission executive staff has come under fire after a scathing internal report by a committee of its own board members revealed a $500,000 budgeting error on a project funded by a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, and county and city officials are now calling for more oversight of the organization, which administers federal transportation and development funds on behalf of five counties and the City of Charlottesville.

The grant in question supports the development of Charlottesville and Albemarle’s joint comprehensive plan, but money ran out early and temporary staff will have to be let go in December, apparently because those in charge assumed hundreds of thousands in matching funds were part of the grant.

Albemarle County Supervisor Ann Mallek and Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin, both TJPDC board members who sat on the committee convened in September to investigate, said they found the funding error was symptomatic of deeper issues.

Most troubling was the lack of communication among staffers and with outside agencies, they said, which the committee felt was the reason the math error went unreported until the project was five months old.

“To my great disgust, it wasn’t discovered for months,” Mallek said. “That’s just not acceptable, and it certainly won’t be tolerated.”

But TJPDC Executive Director Steve Williams said committee members are overstating the problem. He said staff did inadvertently draw up the project budget based on a higher grant figure, but to him, what mattered was delivering what was promised, “and we never felt there was going to be a problem getting the project done,” he said. “That’s ultimately what we were being paid to do. So I guess you could say we weren’t as concerned about the members of the committee.”

Mallek said they should be. “It took us a while to impress that upon the staff,” she said.

The committee report reflects that frustration, saying upper-level management “failed to appreciate the seriousness” of the error, and expressed “inappropriate and misplaced” indignation at the probe. And there’s evidence that attitude has damaged relations between TJPDC and the municipalities it serves. The report cites “serious reservations” on the part of city and county staff when it came to working with TJPDC.

But the report found no intentional wrongdoing, “and now we’re focused on how we’re going to right the ship, so to speak,” Galvin said. New policy on organizational structure and communication will come eventually. Two board members, including Fluvanna businessman Keith Smith, who chaired the committee, are examining how to implement changes. But the task at hand is finishing the HUD-funded project, said Galvin.

Mallek said the TJPDC has done good work in the past, and she’s confident it will again, but the organization will face greater oversight now. “We all need answers, and we need to clean it up immediately so we don’t lose our credibility,” Mallek said. “That’s why we took it so seriously.”