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Lawmakers from Pasco County support Housing Authority changes

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco's lawmakers this week endorsed a further shakeup of the troubled Pasco County Housing Authority.

During the annual Pasco legislative delegation meeting on Monday, legislators unanimously endorsed a bill that gives county commissioners more control over the $15.1 million agency.

"The housing authority has been a disaster as of late," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

After a whistle-blower lawsuit about mismanagement at the agency surfaced in the press, the authority's executive director resigned and federal housing officials began a comprehensive audit.

The legislation would allow county commissioners to appoint the agency's governing board members. Currently the governor has that power. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott appointed four people to the board, replacing three current members and filling one vacancy. Because there had not been appointments to the board in several years, all members continued to serve past the expiration of their terms.

Local officials said the problems go beyond the allegations in the lawsuit. Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, expressed dismay that the agency "left money on the table" in the form of federal grants to combat homelessness.

And Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe urged lawmakers to look at other housing authorities across Florida. "It is an issue beyond Pasco County," he said. He noted historical problems with the St. Petersburg Housing Authority and said he is "not comfortable with the audits" that are conducted at many of the housing agencies.

Len Trubia, one of three outgoing members of the housing authority board, defended the agency and said the new legislation would inject politics into the housing authority.

"A lot of things have been spread that should not have been spread," he said. "To the best of my knowledge there have been no wrongdoings."

Other topics discussed by the delegation included:

• A plan by Scott and Republican leaders to allow foreclosures to bypass the courts. "The foreclosure process is taking longer here than almost any other state in the country," Weatherford said. "You never actually have a recovery in the housing market until we burn through this process." But Thomas McGrady, the chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit, said he is "really concerned about the due process rights of homeowners." Courts are willing to quickly hear a case, he said, but banks often slow down the process because of the costs associated with repossessing a home. He also said so-called "nonjudicial" foreclosures would create a major hit to courts' budgets.

• Several Pasco teachers gave lawmakers an earful about recent overhauls to public education, including eliminating tenure and instituting merit pay. "Leave education alone," said Jim Ciadella, an official with the Pasco teachers union. "We are still catching our breath trying to comply with the (merit pay law)." Other teachers also bemoaned low teacher pay and a new requirement that state employees contribute 3 percent of salary to their retirement.

• Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker lobbied lawmakers for expanded transportation cash, noting that Pasco's road network was a key reason why Raymond James Financial plans to build a new campus in Wesley Chapel. "Now is the time to increase our transportation spending while construction costs are low," she said.

• Lawmakers pledged to try to get enough money for the last installment of the planned Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in the Wiregrass development. This spring, Weatherford secured $6.9 million for the project, but Gov. Scott vetoed the money. Steve Schroeder, a lobbyist for the college, argued the project "wasn't a turkey" and said he hopes lawmakers can finally "get it done."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Lawmakers from Pasco County support Housing Authority changes 09/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 9:49pm]

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