In this era of tight government budgets and declining property values, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority's decision to spend twice the estimated value for 5 acres of land to build a new headquarters without bothering with a property appraisal is particularly irresponsible. The deal leads to broader concerns about the judgment of the Housing Authority's chief executive officer, Darrell Irions.
The property, located at Gandy Boulevard and Interstate 275, was acquired by the authority in July for $1 million, twice the Pinellas County property appraiser's $501,150 market value for 2010. And that number was down $91,000 in value from 2009. That trend apparently escaped the notice of the Housing Authority.
Spending a million dollars of public money should not be predicated on guesswork. Yet Irions and the Housing Authority board settled on the sale price for the Gandy location without a formal appraisal. Irions claims they relied on comparable sales, yet the authority produced only a handful of current sales listings — including one on Beach Drive. That's no comparison at all.
The proposed $1.2 million, 13,000-square-foot building would include a wellness center for employee workouts and a separate private covered entrance to Irions' office. That suggests the boss is too important to risk having contact with his employees or the citizens he is supposed to serve. This may not be the Taj Mahal courthouse in Tallahassee, but it looks to be in the same ZIP code.
The land purchase is finished, but the entire arrangement should be re-examined before construction starts. The construction bids are too high, anyway. And while the Housing Authority's mandate covers the entire city, the proposed location for the headquarters building puts it some distance from many of its clients.
Troubling too, is the appearance of cronyism. One of the authority's board members who voted to approve to land deal, Joseph Lettelleir, is a longtime business associate of Roger Broderick, a developer and broker for the Housing Authority. Broderick, along with Tampa banker and broker Bill Eshenbaugh, brokered the Housing Authority land purchase, splitting a $60,000 real estate commission. While Lettelleir did not directly benefit financially from the land deal, the appearance of coziness is disquieting.
While the Housing Authority might well require new offices to conduct its business, that is no excuse for such disregard of the cost. Although appraisals are not legally required by the city for these sorts of land purchases, the Housing Authority has just provided an excellent — and expensive — argument to change the policy.