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Report with errors took $5,000 and 159 hours to create, Pinellas County says

For weeks, 10 Pinellas County employees spent 159 staff hours creating a report describing the value of the county's affordable housing programs.

Estimated cost in staff time: $5,000.

But the resulting report was riddled with errors, presented over three hours Tuesday to the County Commission. County Administrator Bob LaSala said he was troubled by the incorrect information given to commissioners and planned to counsel staff to "pay attention to detail and accuracies in their presentations, as well as their written material."

The blunder comes seven months after an internal audit ripped the Community Development department for shoddy recordkeeping and undue coziness with private firms, and triggered more questions about the agency.

Much of the agency's 153-page report Tuesday included research already written by outside groups, Realtors and newspapers. The parts presented by the Community Development department — which handles millions of dollars in real estate and loan transactions — embellished the cost of a typical home, exaggerated job creation due to county programs and underplayed foreclosures last year.

"I was very surprised to read about 159 hours to prepare that report because the report was 90 percent or more of other agencies' research," said Commissioner Nancy Bostock.

Community Development director Anthony Jones did not return messages seeking comment. He has been out of the office because of a medical procedure, said his boss, Assistant County Administrator Carl Harness. Harness promised a frank talk with employees about the mistakes.

None of the commissioners said they had lost confidence in Jones, who is paid $101,649 a year. But at least three — Bostock, Norm Roche and Neil Brickfield — said his three-hour report failed to provide enough information about affordable housing programs. Much of it seemed geared toward supporting the need for the programs.

Like others, Brickfield said he expects to receive a corrected report — and he'd like more of his questions answered about the department, which has a $62.5 million portfolio of loans.

The commission also ordered a new review of housing programs.

Jones claimed that nearly 10,000 jobs were created by county housing efforts in the past three years — an overstatement of more than 7,000 jobs using an analyst's estimating formula. The report also said foreclosures were a fraction of their actual 2010 total of more than 10,000. Jones later clarified that his number covered only the month of December.

Jones also used an average home price of $208,000 last year when experts — including his invited presenters that day — use a median price, $154,000, that better reflects market activity.

"I don't think they were doing that to boost the number," Harness said of Jones and the staff.

Unlike other members, commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala minimized the blunders as "not a big deal" and "clerical errors."

In response to August's audit of the housing agency, LaSala agreed to spend $75,000 for a management firm to review the agency. That report is due next month.

The county's contract with the firm included a review of the audit's findings, but LaSala and Jones said this week it will not address whether the audit was right.

Commissioners said they don't know what to expect from it.

"We will refer back to the audit in our review of the consultant's report and use the two to make the appropriate improvements and applications of best practices," LaSala said.

Jones has insisted that the internal audit was unfair and ill informed. He complained to Harness via e-mail March 2 that internal auditors had directly contacted the firm about its final report.

"I don't know why the internal audit division is making direct inquiries to our vendor about our management review," Jones wrote. "Please share this information with Bob."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Report with errors took $5,000 and 159 hours to create, Pinellas County says 03/17/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 12:22am]
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