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Audit rakes county housing agency

TAMPA — As the nation grapples with a deepening housing crisis, Hillsborough County government got a withering report card Monday on how well it helps poor people keep a roof over their heads.

The county ranks near the bottom among local governments in spending federal affordable housing grant money on a timely basis. While the office has made improvements, it still ranks 516 out of 548 agencies nationally that participate in the HOME Investment Partnership Program.

The finding is revealed in a 104-page report from the county's internal performance auditor released Monday. Among other things, the audit faults the office for "mismanagement and a lack of effective oversight."

One result was the county's forfeiture in 2007 of $2-million in federal grant money meant to get low-income residents into homes. The lost grant money angered county commissioners, who called for the review finalized Monday by county internal performance auditor Jim Barnes

"The housing agency's inability to comply with timeliness requirements adversely impacted the agency's performance," Barnes' report says. "Losing grant funds meant that low-income county residents lost opportunities to obtain housing or rehabilitate their existing homes."

Barnes' report, compiled over seven months, covered July 2003 through October 2007. It did not suggest any theft or other criminal wrongdoing.

County Administrator Pat Bean has separately asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general to look into possible misconduct in the handling of grant money.

"I had to tiptoe around that very delicately," Barnes said.

In addition to its national ranking, Hillsborough ranked 28th out of 30 agencies in Florida for its ability to dole out federal grant money on deadline last year. At one point, in 2006, it ranked 535 out of 542 participating agencies nationally.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Commissioner Kevin White, who has been particularly critical of the office. "I think that those results should prompt our county administrator to continue to move forward with efforts to revamp and revitalize that office."

The report goes on to say that current agency management is taking steps to improve oversight and develop checks and balances.

Bean, who has pledged to make Hillsborough the best county government in the nation, said she was previously unaware of the housing ranking.

"It was really just in the last little bit that I've learned about this," Bean said. "No, I'm not happy."

The county's Affordable Housing Office receives roughly $18-million annually in state and federal grant money. It is used for everything from down payment assistance to helping non-profits build or rehab low-cost housing for sale or rent.

Commissioners learned late in 2007 that the county would lose $2-million in HOME money for failing to meet a deadline. More revelations, some of them highlighted by the performance auditor, would follow.

The county was forced to repay the Housing and Urban Development Department about $200,000 in money improperly awarded to a south county rental complex for water and wastewater fees. Rental rates at the complex also were deemed excessive.

Another $731,500 that had to be returned to HUD had been earmarked to low-cost apartment project near the University of South Florida that failed to deliver the number of apartments pledged.

Affordable housing officer Howie Carroll, hired in November 2006, had an "interim" placed next to his title in April of this year. Bean moved a handful of top employees, including animal services director Bill Armstrong, to the office to help him.

With the additional help, the agency managed to commit $3.4-million it was in danger of forfeiting this year due to a looming deadline. The achievement brought a rare congratulatory letter from a HUD official.

"These are remarkable accomplishments," said the letter from Gary Causey, director of the HUD's office of community planning and development in Jacksonville, which praised the work of the county staff.

Armstrong said the continued low ranking does not reflect work by agency employees to replace poorly planned projects with new ones that will meet the rules and get poor people into homes.

The county was recently awarded about $19-million to purchase and rehab foreclosed homes in blighted areas.

"That is another challenge this department will face," Armstrong said. "I'm confident with the staff that we've gotten on board — you've got a bunch of dedicated people who really want to do well for this county."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Fast facts

The shortcomings

Problems cited by the county audit include:

• A defective reporting system that kept County Administrator Pat Bean largely in the dark about problems.

• Ineffectual tracking to ensure that nonprofit groups that receive money perform as they promise.

• Heavy reliance on limited or perfunctory oversight.

• Poor planning and execution.

• A lack of formal policies and procedures.

Audit rakes county housing agency 12/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 9:38pm]

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