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Tampa, Hillsborough County may merge Section 8 housing programs, but some officials skeptical

TAMPA — Both Tampa and Hillsborough County don't need to be running the same housing assistance program for low-income families, County Administrator Mike Merrill says.

He wants to transfer the county's Section 8 voucher program to the Tampa Housing Authority.

If Merrill's plan is approved, 15 county positions would be eliminated. Those jobs are mostly funded with federal money, but the move would still save the county about $250,000.

Discussions about merging Section 8 programs have occurred for years, said Paula Harvey, interim director of the county's affordable housing department. But they accelerated in recent months as the economic slump caused county commissioners to put greater emphasis on consolidation.

"Essentially it was the same program being offered by two separate jurisdictions, which amounts to duplication of the administration of this program," Harvey said.

The county's Section 8 program works with 2,180 families who receive federal vouchers to help with their rent. The Tampa Housing Authority has another 5,000 vouchers.

The Housing Authority of Plant City also distributes Section 8 vouchers, and it has no plans to consolidate with the other agencies.

Both Harvey and Tampa Housing Authority president and chief executive Jerome Ryans have sent letters to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials supporting the transfer and expressing a willingness to work together to draft an agreement.

"It makes good sense," Ryans said. "It's reasonable. We're looking forward to working with the county."

Both the County Commission and the Housing Authority board must sign off on a transfer agreement that also details how the two agencies' waiting lists will be merged and how the displaced county employees will be treated. The federal government gives final approval.

Commissioners hope to discuss the plan during a budget workshop today.

At least two county commissioners have expressed concerns about Merrill's proposal, saying there isn't enough evidence that a solid plan is in place.

Commissioner Victor Crist said there have been conflicts in the past that make him unsure if the Housing Authority is prepared for countywide work.

When the city tore down public housing complexes in the 1990s, Crist said, it took the county almost 10 years to beef up service levels to accommodate the influx of low-income residents. Many of those families used Section 8 vouchers to move into the "Suitcase City" area near the University of South Florida.

"What are going to be the assurances that something like that wouldn't happen again and that both the incorporated and unincorporated areas would be treated fairly?" Crist said.

Commissioner Les Miller said he was also concerned that there may not be enough time for the transfer to be completed before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. He asked for more details about how the merger will affect employees and participating families.

"I understand we have to cut a budget," he said. "But the services are more important than just taking people and moving them."

Bill Russell, executive director of the Sarasota Housing Authority, is a proponent of consolidation. Under his leadership, the agency took over Sarasota County's Section 8 program a year ago.

Government agencies within Lee and Manatee counties also have merged Section 8 duties, Russell said.

Families and landlords are often confused by separate county and city programs, which have different sets of rules and standards, he said. Consolidation also saves the federal government money by cutting down on payroll costs and the number of agencies that must be supervised, he said.

"I think where it belongs is in the housing authority, where it's our sole mission," Russell said.

Though 15 positions will be eliminated if the Hillsborough County Commission approves the merger, not all of them are currently filled. Some of affected county employees may be hired by the Tampa Housing Authority.

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Tampa, Hillsborough County may merge Section 8 housing programs, but some officials skeptical 07/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 10:27pm]
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