An internal audit of two Pinellas County housing agencies identifies some potentially serious problems in county housing programs that warrant the immediate attention of County Administrator Bob LaSala. Despite the fighting between the auditors and county staff, there is too much smoke here to ignore.
The audit of the county's Community Development Department and the associated Housing Finance Authority, which is overseen by a board of directors but shares staff with Community Development, was done by staff auditors in Clerk of Circuit Court Ken Burke's Inspector General Division. Since Burke's election in 2004, his staff has rolled out regular audits of county departments, to the growing irritation of county staffers who contend the auditors stray into policy matters they don't understand.
Covering the period from July 2007 through October 2008, this latest audit is audacious in size: 117 pages long, with 87 suggested changes. It took two years and cost a stunning $386,324. The county staff's response is 461 pages of explanations, defenses and accusations, including that the wife of Burke's director of auditing services worked for Community Development until 2006, departing under unpleasant circumstances because she "was not a good fit." If true, that's a potential taint on the audit that Burke should have prevented.
Feuding aside, the audit raises some valid concerns. In one case, the housing agencies allowed outside lenders and law firms with which they do business to pay for an $8,000 party to celebrate the Housing Finance Authority's 25th anniversary and provide expensive gifts for retiring officials. There is no justification for such practices, which are both inappropriately cozy and tone deaf.
The audit also lists, though sometimes without sufficient documentation, instances of inadequate internal controls, questionable procedures and missing records in the two agencies, which handle millions of dollars and numerous housing loan programs in their mission to increase the county's affordable housing stock.
Of particular concern are financial concessions given to Contemporary Housing Alternatives of Florida Inc., a private affordable housing development group whose board members include two popular former Pinellas administrators, Fred Marquis and Jake Stowers. Did the county give the group breaks because of their presence?
LaSala will have to find out, and he should employ an objective third party, preferably an expert in management of housing programs and finance, to help him examine the housing agencies. Burke's audit contends there are serious problems in the housing programs, and those concerns cannot be swept under the rug.