With the DuPage Housing Authority facing the possibility of owing the federal government millions of dollars, the agency's interim director is determined to be more than a placeholder.
"There's too much to do," Cathy Ficker Terrill said Friday as she sat in the office that once belonged to John Day, the former executive director who stepped down under fire days earlier.
Day resigned and his deputy, Robert Hess, retired Wednesday after DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin demanded their ouster because of two recent audits by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The audit reports, issued in September 2009 and June 2010, concluded that the Wheaton-based DHA had mismanaged funds and inappropriately administered its Section 8 project-based voucher program.
Last year's report, for example, found that the DHA paid more than $3.4 million in housing assistance through its voucher program without documentation of the recipients' eligibility. As a result, the auditors recommended that HUD's Chicago Office of Public Housing require the DHA to either provide documentation or repay nearly $4 million in program funds.
By Wednesday afternoon, the DHA board had hired Terrill and she was ready to tackle the latest challenge in her more than 34 years in human services.
"I am looking forward to the challenge because of the importance of the mission of this organization," the 56-year-old Elmhurst resident said. "If I can do something to help low-income people in this county, then I'm glad to do so."
Terrill, who recently retired as president and CEO of the Ray Graham Association, is working part time as the director of the Institute on Public Policy for People with Disabilities. Her extensive resume includes housing authority experience.
In her interim role with the DHA, Terrill said her goal is to identify and begin addressing any and all problems before a permanent executive director is found. The authority also is searching for a chief financial officer to replace Hess.
"Everything can be fixed," she said. "It takes time and it takes a lot of hard work."
Terrill is planning to meet this week with HUD officials to prioritize what steps the housing authority should take.
"If we try to do everything at once, we won't get anything done," she said. "So we're going to identify three next steps -- in collaboration with HUD -- that need to be done first. And when we get those done, we will move on to three more."
Those steps could include repaying HUD. One of the auditors' recommendations is for the DHA to reimburse HUD more than $600,000 because of an "improper" use of funds.
"It needs to be resolved or repaid," Terrill said.
Then there's the issue of the DHA lacking documentation to support its use of more than $3.4 million in housing assistance payments.
"When they come in to do an audit, sometimes the findings are because you are not able to show the appropriate paperwork," Terrill said. "What I am hoping to do is to be able to go back and see if we can find the paperwork to show that it was either miscoded or misfiled or misplaced."
If the documentation is found, housing authority officials will be able to show the funds were spent appropriately -- and won't have to repay the money. However, locating years' worth of paperwork is another problem.
"We literally have to find paper," said Terrill, noting some applications and financial forms aren't stored electronically. "I have already found hundreds of boxes of files."
Terrill concedes it's going to take "some scope of time" before all the issues are resolved.
"This is not something that can be corrected in six weeks," she said.
Cronin said he believes Terrill is "a no-nonsense professional" who will make the necessary decisions to get the authority back on track.
"She's already hit the ground running by meeting with staff and assessing immediate needs at the agency," he said. "I have complete faith in her abilities to operate the DHA in a transparent and financially responsible way."