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Doubts likely to erase funds for Pasco veterans center

NEW PORT RICHEY — County officials are preparing to withdraw the $400,000 they had earmarked for a homeless veterans transitional housing facility, citing doubts about the nonprofit group behind the project.

The County Commission will decide at today's meeting whether to pull the funding, but the founder of the St. Jude's Veterans Resource Center has already shelved his efforts.

"I am not interested in doing anything in Pasco County at this time, so consider this as a revocation of any funding request for any project for our organization," St. Jude's founder Morson Livingston wrote Friday in an e-mail to the county.

He would not comment for this story.

St. Jude's had proposed converting the former Immanuel Lutheran Church off Ridge Road into a 30-bed facility where vets could get counseling and other services. But the project unraveled last month amid intense opposition from the neighbors and revelations about Livingston, a former Catholic priest who left the Army in 2001 after a blistering reprimand over sexual harassment allegations.

Members of St. Jude's were "very confrontational with the public" at an April meeting that drew more than 200 concerned neighbors, community development manager George Romagnoli wrote in a May 3 memo to the County Commission, recommending the county pull the funding.

"It was apparent from the meeting that the agency was not prepared to handle a project of this magnitude, and had no business or operational plan to operate such a large facility," Romagnoli wrote.

As Livingston's military records surfaced, key board members like Maj. Gen. Wayne Rollings and his wife, Gwen, left St. Jude's, and the contract to buy the property was terminated.

In separate interviews this week, a couple of commissioners cited various problems with the project. Commissioner Henry Wilson, whose district includes the former Lutheran church and the surrounding neighborhoods, shared residents' concerns that St. Jude's was not equipped to run such a facility.

"A lot of unclear information was given to me and to the citizens," Wilson said. "There was a lack of a plan."

Wilson said he also had "extreme concern" when he saw information about Livingston's military service, including the reprimand for "deplorably unprofessional conduct" after three women complained the priest had made unwelcome sexual advances.

Three weeks after those revelations became public, a Times investigation found St. Jude's had been operating deeply in the red, spending about $2.15 for every $1 it took in. Livingston had his own financial troubles, facing foreclosure proceedings at various times on three different homes. And his claims of serving in Bosnia, as well as three of the ribbons on the dress uniform he wears to events, were not reflected in the military records obtained by the Times.

Livingston refused to answer any questions about those issues.

"The catalyst to withdraw was an outcry over the location, but more importantly there came an outcry over the organization itself," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.

Livingston previously told the Times he founded St. Jude's a few years ago after seeing homeless men in military fatigues panhandling at State Road 54 and Little Road. He collected donations of blankets and other goods, drove some vets to the James Haley Veterans Hospital for their appointments, and organized several community events where people could get free meals, clothes, haircuts and showers.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who has praised Livingston for going out of his way to help veterans, said she still supported him.

"I believe he could make it work," she wrote in an e-mail to the Times.

Aside from the county funding, St. Jude's was approved last October for a $493,675 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for the transitional housing facility. The VA said Livingston has not forfeited that funding.

Doubts likely to erase funds for Pasco veterans center 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 8:41pm]
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