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County audit of Homeless Recovery program echoes Times stories

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program did not inspect properties where for years it sent homeless people and millions of public dollars, had no policies to respond to complaints that places were filthy and dangerous, and had insufficient controls over how it spent money, a county audit released Friday has found.

The audit echoes a series of Tampa Bay Times stories last year that prompted county management to shutter the agency and outsource homeless services to local nonprofit organizations.

County commissioners ordered the audit last September, after the Times reported Homeless Recovery had paid former Tampa Port Authority chairman William "Hoe" Brown more than $600,000 over 15 years to house the poor on properties including bug-infested trailers he crammed behind his Seminole Heights business office. The Times continued investigating Homeless Recovery and found the agency paid millions of dollars for years housing the homeless in crime-ridden slums across Tampa. Monday, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the issue.

Michelle Leonhardt, the county's internal auditor, will formally present the audit to commissioners at Wednesday's board meeting. Leonhardt has already briefed commissioners and County Administrator Mike Merrill on her findings. "We all kind of knew it was dysfunctional, and it needed fixing," Merrill said, adding he was happy Leonhardt did not find any instances of fraud.

Leonhardt and her staff spent three months examining Homeless Recovery payment records, interviewing staff and observing operations of the since-closed program, which tried to help the homeless off the streets by linking them with transitional housing and vouchers for bus passes, food and other services.

The audit details incidents previously reported by the Times involving Brown's properties. In late 2011, after several complaints about filthy and unsafe conditions, Homeless Recovery briefly stopped sending people there, but then resumed without explanation. Leonhardt could not find any evidence Jim Silverwood, then the program's manager, had followed up on complaints.

Silverwood resigned last September and his supervisor — Sammie Walthour — was fired days later. The rest of Homeless Recovery's staff has been reassigned to other departments, and the county now pays nonprofits like Metropolitan Ministries, the Salvation Army and the Agency for Community Treatment Services, more commonly known as ACTS, to provide homeless services.

Leonhardt will audit the outsourced homeless services later this year to ensure controls are in place that didn't exist at Homeless Recovery, like inspections of properties and better tracking of where clients go. Leonhardt hopes to complete that audit by the end of the year, she said Friday.

Also Wednesday, Leonhardt will present to commissioners her audit of another controversial agency — Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission. The agency, which regulates cars for hire, such as taxis and limousines, has also drawn complaints of poor oversight.

Leonhardt found several areas for improvement, including writing stricter policies over PTC employee use of take-home cars.

The audits are on the consent agenda for Wednesday's meeting, meaning that unless commissioners request to talk about them, they will not be up for public discussion.

Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

County audit of Homeless Recovery program echoes Times stories 04/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 11:33pm]
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