Among the first things John Hill hopes to accomplish as new director of one of the nation's largest public housing agencies is a task that might seem trivial or easily postponed: Replace all the signs.
But trading in the mismatched, outdated signs that represent the agency across the valley is vital, he said. The new signage will serve as a symbol of what he is trying to create: a unified agency with a consistent image.
"We need to get 'Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority' on every sign," said Hill, 56, who began his new job late last month. "We need to be uniform across the board. It's a psychological effect."
Hill was chosen to lead the agency born late last year from the merger of the Las Vegas Housing Authority and the Clark County Housing Authority. The long-troubled North Las Vegas Housing Authority is expected to join the merger as soon as it deals with an estimated $1.9 million in debt, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The three-agency merger will be the first of its kind in the nation, HUD said.
The regional agency, tasked with providing housing for some of the valley's poorest residents, has an annual budget of $122 million, employs 250 people, and manages more than 3,000 public housing units and 9,700 Section 8 vouchers, which can be used to rent housing.
Valley officials had for years talked about consolidating the three agencies to save money and more efficiently help poor people put roofs over their heads. Many said the merger could serve as a model for other agencies considering consolidation.
The process required a change in state law, the support of politicians in three jurisdictions and a whole lot of negotiating.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who fought for the merger and co-wrote the legislation that allowed it, said it has been a successful learning process. It could be applied to other agencies looking at consolidation as a way to save money in a down economy, she said. She mentioned the valley's fire departments.
"You want to engage the employees early on, don't make them feel threatened," she said. "It takes time, and you shouldn't rush it."
Giunchigliani and others said it's too soon to gauge how much savings the consolidation will create, but the savings in administration costs alone will be substantial.
"We had three executive directors, three finance directors, three personnel departments," said Dora LaGrande, chair of the regional housing authority's board. "Down the road, the gains are going to be great."
Giunchigliani served on the committee that chose Hill as a finalist for the job. His clear sense of direction and experience working with large housing agencies set him apart, she said.
Hill worked as senior vice president of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority in Virginia and was a manager at the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
He said he was thrilled to come west.
"Everybody wants to be able to look forward, advance, do the next thing."
Aside from changing those signs, Hill's immediate goals include creating a long-term plan for the agency. And he is on a "listening tour" of all of the housing authority's public housing properties.
"For too long we've asked people to come to us," he said. "I'm going to go to them. I'm here to serve the residents."
Giunchigliani said she would like to see the agency head in a more customer-friendly direction.
"I would love to see them really drill down to what the clients need, really streamline it, make it simple for people to access information," she said. "Hopefully, more housing will come available to people."
Carl Rowe, who served as interim director of the regional agency since September 2009, said the merger has placed the agency in good stead with federal officials. That could translate to increased funding down the road.
"As an organization, we're doing well," he said. "The staff is gelling. It's great to leave on a positive note."
Rowe, who also served as director of the Las Vegas Housing Authority from 2006 until the merger, was not chosen as a finalist for the director's job.
Some members of the board had said they wanted to bring in new blood to lead the agency.
Hill "hasn't supervised either staff -- he has a neutral position," LaGrande said.
"That will give some of the staff comfort. They'll feel the playing field is more level."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.