The low-income apartment mess: A reason not to trust Tulsa County government


Some people don't understand why the opponents of the proposed new Tulsa County sales taxes call this a billion-dollar blank check. They don't understand why we worry about this public trust that will have full power to add, delete, and change projects and spend the excess. Let me remind you of a story that dominated local headlines in 2002.

The Tulsa County Industrial Authority (TCIA -- whose trustees are the three County Commissioners) loaned $83 million to non-profits to finance low-income housing in Tulsa. The non-profits, mostly out-of-state organizations, purchased apartment complexes (thus taking them off the tax rolls), and many of the complexes were allowed to decay. The County Commissioners didn't exercise any oversight to ensure that the complexes were being maintained or that the requirement that 40% of units serve low-income tenants was being met. In some of the complexes most of the units were uninhabitable. From a November 9, 2002, Tulsa Whirled story about one of the complexes, Falcon Ridge:

City inspectors have found numerous health hazards -- including uncapped gas lines and faulty furnaces -- at an apartment complex where six residents suffered carbon monoxide poisoning earlier this week.

An improperly vented hot water heater in one of the buildings at the Falcon Ridge apartment complex was cited as the source of a leak that caused carbon monoxide levels to be as much as 10 times what is considered dangerous.

Six residents, including a baby, were treated at local hospitals Tuesday after becoming ill....

Robert Strong, whose girlfriend was sickened by carbon monoxide, said that the apartment he was relocated to was filthy, so he is staying with his parents.

"It was dirty and filthy. The tub was leaking and the toilet was running all the time. It was gross in there," he said.

Strong said he had been paying rent on a month-to-month basis but was asked to sign a lease for his new apartment.

Stray kittens could be seen Thursday in one of the vacant units in the building where carbon monoxide was released. The city's animal control office said it would only respond if the property owner makes a complaint.

The Tulsa County Industrial Authority loaned Virginia-based Tulsa American Housing Foundation nearly $30 million to purchase and rehabilitate Falcon Ridge and several other complexes in 1999.

The foundation defaulted on its loan and has filed for bankruptcy in a Virginia court, records show.

Besides the non-profits, the TCIA loaned $41 million to John Piercey, a "dear friend" of Commissioner Bob Dick, and the financial adviser who handles selling bonds for nearly every county project. Here's a tidy little deal, recounted in a Tulsa Whirled story on April 7, 2002:

While problems surfaced with some nonprofit operators, the authority said it was pleased with the way one for-profit operator handled his properties: JC&P Limited Partnerships. Piercey said he and his family members operate the partnerships. Both Dick and Piercey say there is no conflict of interest in the fact that Piercey has been both a borrower and an adviser to the county.

"Does that mean I give up my right as an individual?" Piercey said.

Dick said he has known Piercey since both worked for the city in the '70s and '80s. Piercey is a former development director for the city. Dick is a former Tulsa Police officer.

Dick said Piercey is a "dear friend."

Piercey has a long history with the county as a paid financial adviser on various projects, including the new jail and the "4 to Fix the County" project.

"Each deal that he brought to us stands on its own merit. He was smart enough to put together the deals," Dick said.

In the early '90s, after Piercey had spent two years trying to secure financing to purchase several apartment complexes, he turned successfully to the authority in 1993.

The authority approved a loan for $15 million to purchase and rehabilitate nine properties, including property in the 61st Street and Peoria Avenue area.

Five years later, in 1998, the authority approved financing for twice that amount, $30 million, to the Tulsa American Housing Foundation to purchase the same properties from Piercey. The funds were also for "substantial rehabilitation" of the properties, records show.

Piercey says that doesn't mean he made a $15 million profit in five years.

"I never made a lot of money on those because I put money back into them. I take pride in what we own and how we run them," Piercey said.

After the initial project with the authority in 1993, Piercey received approval for funding on four more projects, many of which included the renovation of dilapidated structures. Piercey said he is proud that he never defaulted on any of his loans.

"They didn't create this especially for me," Piercey said. "I took advantage of what many developers in Tulsa County have taken advantage of -- using tax-exempt financing."

All this is probably legal, but the coziness of this deal makes me uneasy. Add to that the Commissioners' failure to check out the non-profit groups before lending them millions on Tulsa County's credit rating. Add to that the Commissioners' neglect of oversight.

If you want to learn more about this issue, search the Whirled's archives for the year 2002, and look up terms like "Tulsa County Industrial Authority", "John Piercey", "Tulsa American Housing Foundation". As much as I dislike the Whirled's editorial positions, I have to admire the digging reporters Susan Hylton and Ziva Branstetter did on this story, and the fact that the Whirled published their work.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 17, 2003 10:55 PM.

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