TALLAHASSEE — Florida officials last March heralded the arrival of $91.1 million in federal assistance devoted to uplifting neighborhoods struggling with abandoned and foreclosed homes.
A year later, very little of the money has been spent, putting the state at risk of losing millions in housing dollars.
State officials vow they will earmark the grant dollars by the September deadline, but local governments fear the worst. They claim the understaffed state program dodged questions about how to use the money and delayed its approval process, leaving some counties and cities with less than eight months to purchase and remodel dozens of homes.
"It does cause a lot of grief when the agency that is supposed to help us move forward is tying us up," said Melinda Thomas, director of housing and community development for Melbourne, a coastal city slated to receive $1.9 million from the state.
State officials said they have worked nonstop to teach local leaders how to spend the money. Local governments embattled by budget cuts have made for a slow learning curve, they argue.
"They have given you incorrect information," said Jackie Dupree, who oversees the grant program for the state Department of Community Affairs. "My staff has been putting in 10, 12 hours a day, sometimes they work through lunch."
Still, the numbers suggest trouble.
Florida trails 42 states in spending its share of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federal assistance grant that funds the purchase, rehabilitation and resale of foreclosed properties. While roughly 14 percent of the grant money has been spent nationally, the state has spent 2 percent of its award, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the grant.
Any money not obligated by September must be returned to HUD, a threat that could cheat neighborhoods across the state out of housing assistance.
"We've waited so long to get the money, but the time frame hasn't changed any," said Bob Hebert, housing and community initiatives director for Charlotte County, which was awarded $6.8 million. "It stinks. We are working hard to try to get the program done, but they have also put some blocks in our way."
Federal housing officials said it is urgent that Florida spend its money while it can. Only an act of Congress could extend the September deadline.
"Florida, of course, is a tremendously hard-hit part of the country," said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman.
HUD gave 49 governments in Florida, including the state, a total of $540 million in neighborhood stabilization dollars last year. Governments that did not qualify to receive direct funding from HUD because they are too sparsely populated or did not have as much need could apply for funding from the state.
While large counties and cities could begin spending their money as soon as they received the green light last March, smaller communities had to wait until July for the state to send out grant contracts.
Applicants had to submit an environmental and budget plan. They then waited for the state to send a letter announcing their approval. Only then could they begin spending money.
At least 10 local governments claimed the state took weeks to approve paperwork or bogged down the program with unclear directions.
"We moved real fast to do things, and then, unfortunately, the things we submitted didn't get turned around," said Bob Keating, community development director in Indian River County on the Atlantic coast.
Local governments said they hesitated to spend any money without the state's input because they receive no money up front. The state reimburses them.
"They needed to create their infrastructure process before they could tell us what we needed to get done," said Jean Rags, director of health and human services in Hernando County.
In Clay County, housing officials said the state has yet to send them a letter acknowledging their contract agreement. They promised the state they would buy 22 homes.
"We haven't seen the green light to purchase any properties yet," said Barbara Taylor, housing coordinator for the northeastern county. "We are waiting to hear back any day."
The state said Clay County already got its go-ahead.
A few governments said they had no complaints.
Rocio Soto, Miami Beach's community development specialist, said the state always responded to her questions right away. The city has been promised $7.2 million.
Janice Browning, housing and community development division director for the Department of Community Affairs, said some cities and counties simply could not keep up.
"Local governments are having capacity issues," she said. "We've had huge staff turnovers and some entire departments abolished."
But local governments say the state is the one with the staffing problem.
Florida's Neighborhood Stabilization Program has had trouble keeping more than two temporary employees on staff at a time. That's not enough people to approve documents and reimburse funds for 24 governments, local housing officials said.
"It would have been helpful to have more staff there," said Tom Webster, housing programs manager for Alachua County, home to Gainesville. "The one problem that we have had is trying to get timely, written responses back from our questions either when we call or send them by e-mail."
Dupree acknowledged keeping a five-person work force at full staff has been tricky. Recently, the state hired two more employees, bringing the staff to four.
"When you have individuals who are working with no medical benefits, no leave time, the retention issue is very real," Dupree said.
Still, she said other state employees chipped in to help get the work done. And more hands will soon be on the way: The state plans to hire three contractors to help local governments spend their money.
But Browning said that doesn't mean the state has not been doing a good job of explaining things on its own. "We provided a lot of individual technical assistance," she said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.