TAMPA — Hillsborough County might have misspent more than $1 million in grant money between 2010 and 2013, according to a federal audit, and needs to either come up with documents showing it was properly spent or pay it back.
The audit, released July 9 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of the Inspector General, criticized Hillsborough's code enforcement and affordable housing departments for incorrectly spending money intended for fixing up blighted areas.
In an interview Friday, Affordable Housing Services director Paula Harvey vehemently disagreed with the audit. Hillsborough is contesting the findings, which Harvey responded to with a 15-page letter to federal officials in which she argued the county shouldn't repay a dime.
"They're wrong. They're flat wrong," Harvey said of the findings. "They put in information that is misleading and incorrect."
Officials with HUD and the Office of the Inspector General did not return calls for comment.
The audit focuses on how Hillsborough spent Community Development Block Grant money, which is generally meant to help fix blighted or slum areas, or in poorer neighborhoods.
The audit was triggered by a public complaint "alleging the County's misuse of CDBG funds for the County's cleanup events," the report states.
There is no explanation in the report of what the "cleanup events" were nor where the complaint came from — one of many problems Harvey had with the audit and its methodology.
In 2003, Hillsborough officials set up eight "target areas" — predominately low-income neighborhoods, according to U.S. Census Bureau data — to get priority for CDBG spending. Among them: parts of Dover, Gibsonton, Palm River, Ruskin, the University of South Florida area and Wimauma.
Auditors criticized the county for incorrectly including sections that are not lower-income and concluded that one-ninth of the county's target areas were either not residential areas or not lower-income. The audit does not specify what areas were wrongly included.
"I've never seen any of their evidence that backs up their finding statements," Harvey said. "They've never showed me anything they actually collected or gathered."
In follow-up conversations with HUD officials, Harvey said she was told auditors visited Wimauma and determined it shouldn't qualify as a lower-income or blighted area.
"I asked them, are you sure you went to Wimauma?" Harvey said. "Are you sure you didn't end up going all the way to Sun City Center?"
Harvey is working with HUD officials in Jacksonville, she said Friday, and it's unclear when they will determine if the county has to repay grant money.
If HUD asks for documentation, Harvey said, the county's code enforcement office has photographs proving the federal grants were used for operations in blighted areas.
Contact Will Hobson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.