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Top housing officer moved in shake up

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Affordable Housing Office got a long-anticipated shake up Friday in the wake of troubles there.

Out: Interim Affordable Housing Officer Howie Carroll, who got moved to the county's Debt Management Department.

In: Valmarie Turner, a contract's manager for the office, takes over as director of Affordable Housing. And the agency will become its own department again.

Turner, who started in the office in November 2006, did affordable housing work for the city of Daytona Beach and Fulton County, Ga., before that.

Finally, County Administrator Pat Bean added the title of affordable housing officer to Debt Management Department Director Mike Merrill's titles. Merrill was recently elevated to become one of six administrators who report directly to Bean, overseeing the general areas of utilities and commerce.

Merrill has ultimate authority over the agency, working with other department heads to promote affordable housing projects.

Carroll will help manage county debts and advise Merrill on some affordable housing issues, but he will not play any role in oversight of the agency.

Bean expressed confidence that, along with steps already taken, the leadership changes have the potential to finally get the office on solid footing.

"They've come a long way," Bean said. "I think there's an opportunity to get better and better."

Affordable Housing has been a problem agency for the county for the better part of a decade. Its managers have faced accusations of corruption, mismanagement and running a hostile workplace.

Last year came revelations that the office had to forfeit $2-million in federal grant money for failing to meet a deadline. Other oversight lapses threatened the loss of more money.

An internal investigation revealed concerns about work possibly being steered by employees for personal gain. Bean called for a pair of federal investigations, including one by the FBI, that are ongoing.

She also deployed a team of trusted advisers to improve accounting in the office.

Turner becomes the fifth director of the department in about six years. Her salary will increase to $94,640 from $74,069.

Carroll's salary will stay the same: $90,126.

County payroll records do not indicate that Merrill is receiving additional money along with the added assignment.

He began his career working for a real estate investment trust 33 years ago, in another depressed financial market, acquiring distressed properties and selling them off.

Merrill acknowledges the challenges in overseeing an agency that has received so much criticism. But he thinks he can help steer a turnaround with the people in place.

"I went into it with my eyes wide open," he said. "I think we've got a really good team."

Merrill is almost singular in Hillsborough County government for the strong support he enjoys from commissioners, who credit him with helping keep the county in strong financial shape through its debt management.

His appointment satisfies, in part, a long-standing request from the county's Affordable Housing Task Force, a citizens advisory panel that has argued for a top official reporting directly to Bean to oversee affordable housing.

Former Commissioner Tom Scott, who chairs the panel, said however that he had hoped that affordable housing would be that person's sole responsibility. While he said he respects Merrill, he's disappointed that the job is going to someone with several other responsibilities.

"You need someone who is going to focus strictly on housing and move the agenda," Scott said. "With this set-up, you're back to the same set-up as before."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Top housing officer moved in shake up 12/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:33am]

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