West Pasco Habitat for Humanity chapter starts over

NEW PORT RICHEY — The West Pasco Habitat for Humanity has undergone a major overhaul with several former employees saying they were wrongly forced out.

The governing board of the nonprofit removed the executive director in May, followed by as many as 10 staff members, including some who were asked to leave.

The chapter is just now building its first home of the year.

Governing board members have partnered with the West Pasco Board of Realtors to help rescue the chapter.

Several former employees say they were simply told that the group was headed "in a new direction." But they say the board members are the real problem.

"I think we were all set up to fail," said Rebecca Russell-Gootee, the executive director for three years who now runs the Healthy Start Coalition in Vero Beach on the east coast. "The things we were trying to do, we never had the support of the board behind us."

Jim Downey, a banker and president of the board for West Pasco Habitat, refused to discuss Russell-Gootee's departure or why the other staffers left. He acknowledged the group "kind of had a dry spell there where we weren't building too many houses."

"But we're excited about our new director," he said, noting the group is building a home in Holiday and is working with the county on the Neighborhood Stabilization Program that buys foreclosed homes and fixes them up.

So what's the new direction?

"It's basically just working on our mission," he said. "We're dedicated to eliminating poverty housing and trying to provide affordable housing to low-income families in the community."

John Stratford ran the affiliate's "ReStore" that sells used household goods at the chapter's office on Madison Street. He was fired Aug. 31. He said he has complained to Habitat International's headquarters in Atlanta.

Habitat spokesman Adam Rondeau said the headquarters is conducting a "program review" to assist the affiliate "in their local efforts."

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Employees said problems between board members and Russell-Gootee began surfacing in the spring. In April, she survived a no confidence vote. A month later she was gone.

Few current and former board members want to talk about it.

Board member Al Couture, a longtime volunteer and staffer: "I signed a piece of paper that says I can't give out any information on what happened."

County Commissioner Jack Mariano, a former board member, said his final meeting was in the spring. A lawyer for Habitat International was there and told the board, "Whatever goes on in the meeting needs to stay in the meeting."

Mariano declined to say why he left the group, saying it was tied to what happened at that meeting.

Former Pasco Sheriff's Maj. Kim Bogart, also a board member, said Habitat International officials told him to direct all questions to the affiliate's president. "I'm obligated to refer you to Jim Downey," said Bogart, a candidate for sheriff.

Downey said, "I can't talk about any of the personnel problems in the past."

Pressed for specifics about Russell-Gootee, he said, "I don't know the particulars on why exactly she left."

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The West Pasco Habitat has long been in the shadow of its East Pasco cousin, which has built nearly 100 homes in the past decade and began a major expansion in Lacoochee.

Pasco's Community Development director George Romagnoli said that given the population and business concentration in West Pasco, "they should be 10 times the size of East Pasco (Habitat). They've never quite reached that point."

"The Board of Realtors has taken a special interest in them," Romagnoli said. "They've kind of made that their special charity. I think that's going to help them out."

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Marie Longo was finance director but left a few weeks after Russell-Gootee was fired. "It came down to a personality conflict," she said. "I don't think they had the same vision in mind. Rebecca was starting to create something of a community-based thing where there would be a lot more going on besides building homes."

The group had started several eco-friendly projects, including a permaculture garden behind its new office. The project was a way to teach people organic gardening techniques and to help build community involvement. It also helped build a steady supply of potential volunteers. The group hosted movie nights and was starting a Saturday market.

"Some of the board did not like the garden idea at all," said Russell-Gootee, who had been an administrator at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic for eight years before coming to New Port Richey. "I don't think they understand that we could be bringing in a whole different type of person who didn't know how to swing a hammer."

Stratford said he raised $230,000 through the ReStore. He said one board member told him his efforts were "keeping the doors open."

Russell-Gootee said board members were more interested in the county's Neighborhood Stabilization program, which received millions in federal stimulus dollars. So far, the group has acquired 24 homes through the project and found buyers for 15.

She said that program has merit by getting foreclosures off the market and getting some people into homes. But most of the houses were out of the price range for families that meet Habitat qualifications.

"The end price was not something that any Habitat family was ever going to be able to afford," she said.

Former finance director Longo said Russell-Gootee wasn't a perfect manager.

"In the board's defense, Rebecca spent a little bit more quickly than we were bringing money in," she said. "But when you're a visionary, you don't really look at mundane things like money."

Longo also said board members should have been more active in raising money.

Or as former office manager Bernadette Brown put it, "I can tell you that the board was not present at a lot of fundraising events. There wasn't a lot of board support and board presence."

Stratford also questioned the wisdom of buying the old Sun Groves citrus packing plant on Madison Street. The group bought the 2.5 acre property in January 2010 for $650,000. It's market value is $270,000.

"And now we're strapped with a mortgage that we can't afford," he said. "Gee, what's wrong with that picture?"

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The East Pasco affiliate of Habitat merged with the struggling Central Pasco branch four years ago. John Finnerty, president of that chapter, said he's long advocated having one affiliate for the whole county.

"From an administrative standpoint and from a service standpoint, it would make real good sense," he said. "We've made the invitation, it's never been picked up. We would go into discussions to them tomorrow if we were invited to do that."

Russell-Gootee said she had informal talks with Finnerty about the idea years ago, but both the board and her staff opposed the move. Looking back, she said, "that was probably the ultimate plan."

"That affiliate could've stood on its own and done amazing things," she said. "I just think that affiliate doesn't have the governance that it needs to have. If having it merge into one county affiliate is what's to make that happen … I think that's the best thing."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

West Pasco Habitat for Humanity chapter starts over 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 2:49pm]

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