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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In just nine months, the New Brunswick Housing Authority (NBHA) issued more than 150 "improper parking fines" totalling $6,300 to the low-income tenants in its oldest housing project.
In a scheme uncovered by New Brunswick Today, the city's public housing agency was, more often than not, charging double the amount allowed under tenant leases.
All of the violations were issued to tenants in the 260-unit Schwartz Homes and Robeson Village public housing complex in the city's Fourth Ward.
The records show that the NBHA issued 154 fines, including 98 fines that cost $50, far more than any legitimate parking ticket allowed under city laws, between January 2015 and September 2015.
Mayor James Cahill confirmed the fines were issued "without proper authority or regulation" in an exclusive interview with New Brunswick Today on June 28.
"That was inappropriate," Cahill admitted, emphasizing the scheme was a way "upping the ante" for tenants who were "not reacting to the $25 fine."
The most violations issued in a single month was 30, during both February and July.
"I assume it was someone at the Housing Authority," said Cahill, asked whose idea it was to issue violations for twice the price allowed. "I don't know exactly whose idea it was."
Cahill's explanation differred significantly from the one provided previously by his own spokesperson, Jennifer Bradshaw, who blamed a "system glitch" for the $50 fines.
"This past February the Housing Authority examined the tickets that were being issued at all properties and found a system glitch that was sending $50 tickets to repeat offenders," explained Bradshaw.
"Repeat offenders were getting hit with $50 fines when it should have been $25," Bradshaw told the City Council on June 1, and Council President Kevin Egan called the news "fantastic."
NBHA Executive Director John Clarke credited NBToday with bringing the pattern of overcharging tenants to his attention during a February 1 interview.
The NBHA has since halted issuing parking fines altogether.
Clarke also promised to "make a full report to the board" about the findings of the internal investigation.
However, at the June 22 NBHA meeting, Clarke did not make any mention of the fiasco until New Brunswick Today asked about it.
"I do plan on meeting with the board's Operations Committee to make that report," said Clarke. "We plan on meeting with the Operations Committee the second week of July… to make a full report and go through some of the other steps we're taking going forward.
But when asked who served on the board's Operations Committee, no one could say.
The NBHA operates approximately 1,250 rental units in the city, administers the "Section 8" housing choice voucher program, and plays a key role in real estate and construction, doubling as the city's "redevelopment agency."
Cahill's spokesperson said that no "incorrect fines" were found to be issued at the NBHA's other properties, which are managed by private companies rather than the NBHA.
The questionable fines were mostly issued along Wright Place, a city-owned street which runs through the heart of the NBHA's Schwartz Homes housing complex.
As a public right-of-way, the street should fall under the jurisdiction of the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), another independent city government agency that has become increasingly cozy with the NBHA in recent months.
Officials say they have since refunded some $2,450 in fines that were twice the price due to the "glitch."
"They fixed the error in the system and credited the extra $25 back to the accounts of all the affected tenants," said Bradshaw. "An appeal process regarding the parking fines is laid out in the lease but none have been appealed."
But Bradshaw's statements also downplayed the severity of the errors: She claimed there were only 40 "incorrect fines" in 2015, and "no more than 12" in 2014.
Even if one adopts City Hall's definition of an "incorrect fine," NBHA records provided in response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request show that it actually assessed 98 incorrect fines in 2015.
Clarke clarified that those fines 98 fines were issued to a total of about 40 tenants, perhaps explaining where Bradshaw got the lower figure.
Bradshaw, a former journalist who has served as Cahill's spokesperson since 2014, did not respond to a request for a correction or clarification, or for the exact number of double-priced fines issued during 2014 or 2016.
According to the records, the NBHA wrote up "work orders" for each of the "violations."
Making matters worse for the NBHA's tenants, they did not find out about the fines by way of tickets left on their windshields, like a normal parking ticket.
Instead, the "work orders" arrived along with the residents' monthly rent bill.
Under the questionable arrangement, where tenants were considered guilty until innocent, they were also subjected to the potential for eviction if they refused to pay, or could not afford to.
Clarke said in April that he was unsure when the agency started giving out the $50 tickets.
"We just met with [Schwartz-Robeson tenants] last night also, so they are fine," said City Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar, downplaying the problem at a February 17 Council meeting. "Apparently the big issues that they have are not as big as what we were presented with."
Further complicating matters, one of the the people behind the questionable scheme was recently appointed to the Board of Commissioners for the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), the agency that is in charge of enforcing parking laws throughout the city, including the NBHA's Schwartz-Robseon complex.
Mayor Cahill appointed Andrea Eato-White to the NBPA Board of Commissioners in May 2015.
Officials confirmed that the NBPA collects $4 out of every legitimate parking ticket that is paid in New Brunswick, but not the extrajudicial fines levied by NBHA staff.
Confronted about the NBHA scheme to issue its own fines, which don't include the $4 kickback to the NBPA, Parking Authority Chairman Kevin McTernan responded with questions of his own.
"Didn't they stop that?" asked McTernan, when asked for his reaction to the NBHA parking violation scheme. "Then it's our responsibility, right?"
McTernan declined to ask Eato-White to address the issue, and she remained silent when asked about the issue at the February 24 NBPA board meeting.
"My opinion is that that's a matter between–with the Housing Authority," said McTernan, an executive at Robert Wood Johnson Univeristy Hospital (RWJUH).
"I don't think that's part of [Eato-White's] position here."
"Your question really is not for this body. The question is for the housing authority," said NBPA attorney Leonard Bier. "When [Eato-White] serves here, she serves as a commissioner. She works for the housing authority."
All of the parking violations stemmed from the same employee, Steven Davis, who works under Eato-White.
The records released also confirmed that many Schwartz-Robeson tenants were being charged as much as $14 for getting their light bulbs replaced, a figure NBToday had previously reported.
Tenants were also charged $17 to get a new shower head, $22 for resolving a "bathtub stoppage," and $25 for a variety of "yard violations" and "patio violations."
And fines for "violations" were not limited to improper parking.
Simple things like leaving wet clothing hanging to dry, or leaving a bicycle chained up outdoors garnered $25 fines for tenants, who typically pay rent based on their income.
"Public Housing is the housing of last resort for citizens of low income," wrote NBHA attorney Joseph Manfredi, who also represents eight other housing authorities in New Jersey.
The fines were just a drop in the bucket for the $14 million federally-funded agency, which apparently spends tens of thousands of dollars on travel expenses for its officials, according to other documents released by the agency.
For months, the NBHA has been stalling to avoid releasing the records of its own travel expenses, and many other records requested under the OPRA law.
NBT had to go to great lengths to obtain the records, which were only released after this reporter filed a lawsuit in the Middlesex County Superior Court with the help of attorney Walter Luers, who serves as President of the NJ Foundation for Open Government (NJFOG).
The records were initially requestedon October 6 of last year, but NBT did not receive them until May 20. The lawsuit was filed in February, and is still pending.