TAMPA — Hillsborough County's loss of $2-million from a federal affordable housing grant last year may not be unusual.
A preliminary review by county internal performance auditor Jim Barnes suggests that the county has routinely lost similar amounts of money in each of the preceding years, dating back to at least 2001.
Barnes said he is still trying to ascertain whether accounting errors may be partly to blame. Possibly the county spent some of the money but failed to note it in the proper ledger.
That in and of itself would be problematic.
"We're going to find the answer," Barnes said.
Commissioners have been riding Affordable Housing Officer Howie Carroll since he revealed his office lost $2-million in federal HOME Investment Partnership Act grant money last year. The reason: The county never decided how to spend it, missing a deadline for committing the money.
County Administrator Pat Bean has taken more direct control of the office, saying problems there predate the hiring of Carroll late in 2006. Since then, federal officials have notified the county that it is in danger of missing this year's deadline.
Barnes is not sure what happened in previous years. But records suggest the office forfeited amounts ranging from $2-million to $2.3-million annually dating to 2004. A cursory check of prior years, dating to 2001, upheld the pattern, Barnes said.
"What I'm finding from accounting records is that what we spent is not close to what we got," Barnes said.
HOME grant money helps local government build and rehab rental and for-sale housing for low- to moderate-income families. Each year the county receives an allotment from which it may draw upon once it has made firm commitments on how it plans to spend the money.
Barnes suspects the county is forgoing similar amounts annually in Community Development Block Grants, which are more generally targeted to fixing blighted areas. However, some of that money, if unused, can roll over to the following year.
Barnes is also looking into whether the agency spent county property tax revenue for housing programs that could have been paid for with federal grants.
The latest apparent loss has some commissioners looking at the office in a harsher light while wondering whether blame should be placed higher. If Barnes' analysis holds true, some of them say Bean's administration could be put in the spotlight.
"Now maybe we need to go above Howie's head," said Commissioner Kevin White, who brought the findings to light Thursday after getting a briefing from Barnes.
Attempts to reach Bean, Carroll and Bruce Armstrong, who is supervising the office on an interim basis, were not successful late Thursday.
White was among a majority of commissioners all but calling for Carroll to be fired last week. Their wrath was ignited by the latest letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, warning last month the county could lose much of this year's HOME grant allotment.
The lost money is particularly painful, given the current housing market, which is seeing record numbers of foreclosures.
"We've missed years of opportunity when the housing market and building was actually at its peak," White said. "Now people are losing their jobs and their homes and they could have had some place to go."
Commissioners Rose Ferlita and Mark Sharpe, another of Carroll's critics, said Barnes' initial findings may not hold Carroll harmless. If a long-standing problem exists, he must fix it. But it's also up to Bean, they said, and anyone else who has had a hand in overseeing the office.
"Because (the administration) has not been very forthcoming in terms of disclosure, you absolutely start pointing fingers," Ferlita said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected]
or (813) 226-3387.