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HUD report blasts housing panel

The executive director of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority has used his moral views to discriminate against people by refusing to rent apartments to unmarried adults with children and to single people.

Violations of federal Fair Housing laws were among a litany of problems at the Housing Authority detailed in a scathing report released Friday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The 30-page report states, among other things, that the volunteer Housing Authority commissioners don't know their jobs; that proper records aren't being kept; that tax money has been misspent on meals, cellular phones and Christmas cards; and that there are no good reasons why as many as one-third of the 225 public housing units have been vacant at one time.

And while the Housing Authority has been plagued by too many vacant units, its executive director, Tim Keffalas, has denied housing to some unwed people and those who want to live together.

According to the report, Keffalas told HUD officials that he refused rentals to these people because of his own moral beliefs; because doing so "is local public practice"; and because it is in keeping with state laws that don't acknowledge such unions.

"It is reasonable for a person to conclude that other classes of persons may have been denied housing for other personal reasons or beliefs," the report states and adds that "personal beliefs and values are not admission criteria for public housing."

Keffalas said Friday he didn't want to comment on the HUD report because he had not seen it.

On Friday, Paul Turner, HUD's Florida director of public housing, met with Mayor Anita Protos, City Manager Costa Vatikiotis and Housing Authority board chairman Bill Keigans at City Hall.

Keigans said Turner didn't give him any ultimatums during the one-hour meeting. However, in a letter accompanying the report, Turner wrote that the Housing Authority has until December to show "substantial progress" in reducing its vacancies. As of July 16, the Housing Authority had 36 empty apartments.

Turner wrote that if the seven-member board of Housing Authority commissioners doesn't feel Keffalas and his staff can make the necessary corrections, "it should consider contracting with another nearby housing agency for management services."

Keigans wouldn't say Friday whether Keffalas will be removed from his $30,000-a-year job. The Housing Authority board is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at its offices, 500 S Walton Ave.

"It's not up to me, it's up to the board," said Keigans, who had not read the full report when contacted Friday. "I wouldn't want to speculate on whether we would keep him or not because I don't know.'

Helene Pierce, a board member since April, acknowledged Friday that the HUD report is negative. As for whether Keffalas should remain executive director, "I think he has to reconsider and we have to reconsider," she said.

Another Housing Authority board member contacted said he had not received a copy of the report.

Keffalas was hired two years ago by the Housing Authority even though he had no prior public housing administration experience and other more qualified candidates had applied.

If the Housing Authority's problems aren't corrected, Turner wrote that HUD would explore other options. The most extreme measure would be for HUD officials to take over management of the Housing Authority.

"Over the past two years, the condition of the property has deteriorated, vandalism has increased, and unnecessary repairs and replacement of equipment continue to occur," Turner wrote.

In the meantime, HUD plans to withhold federal subsidies for apartments that are vacant and monitor almost every action taken by the Housing Authority.

The HUD report points out that the Housing Authority has received more than $1.2-million since Keffalas took over.

"No valid reasons exist for the continued vacancy problems at the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority," Turner wrote in a letter to Keigans.

The HUD report offers details about what federal officials found during a weeklong visit to the Housing Authority in June. For each swipe the report takes, it offers detailed suggestions about how to fix the problems.

One of the report's first darts is aimed at the Housing Authority board. The board, which is appointed by the City Commission, was criticized for not setting policies for management of the agency. The board spent $6,000 to hire a firm to write such policies and procedures, but then never adopted those policies. They sit unused in a file, according to the report.

When HUD officials reviewed financial records, they found that between April 1995 and March the Housing Authority board met after its regular monthly meetings at Pappas restaurant in Tarpon Springs for dinner. Meal tabs ranged from $33 to $180 and they were paid with Housing Authority funds. As much as $1,700 was misspent, including money for flowers, Christmas cards and a holiday luncheon for staff, as well as other questionable purchases not explained in the report.

HUD has demanded the money be repaid.

The HUD report details other wasteful spending. For example, the Housing Authority board gave Keffalas permission to buy three cellular phones, although all of the agency's apartments are within a 5-mile radius. The phones, plus related calls, cost the Housing Authority more than $2,200 from April 1995 to March 1996.

"The purchases are an uneconomical use of agency funds, considering the number of vacancies, the condition of the occupied units, and unsightly condition of common grounds," the report says. "This is a concern when the Housing Authority's position is "it does not have funds to make necessary repairs to the units.' "

HUD says the Housing Authority must get rid of its portable phones.

An expansion and upgrade of the Housing Authority offices also was classified by HUD as an "uneconomical" use of money. The report said HUD never gave the Housing Authority permission for office renovation work.

The Housing Authority also has not maintained proper records to document how $450,000 was spent to repair apartments and buy new equipment, according to the report.

The report slams the Housing Authority for its careless record-keeping and budgeting. The report states that documents are missing; items that were not budgeted were purchased anyway; budgeted items did not reflect the true costs of goods and services; and daily time sheets and work orders do not show the correct number of hours worked.

The report also is critical of the Housing Authority's apparent lack of a plan to identify vacant units and get them fixed. The report says the Housing Authority's inability to rent apartments has left some units ripe for vandalism. For example, an apartment ready to rent in February was left empty and now needs major repairs.

A vivid picture of a Housing Authority in disarray emerges from the report, which says routine maintenance has ceased as shown by unmowed grass, screen doors off hinges and an overall unkempt appearance.

The report takes Keffalas to task for being overly involved in the minutia of day-to-day operations, which should be left to his staff.

"Lack of delegation of responsibilities by the executive director appears to be a major cause of the problems," the report states.

The Housing Authority also is accused in the report of using a "blanket" open purchase system for buying supplies from local vendors. Maintenance staff would call the Housing Authority office for a purchase order number and then go out to buy supplies, tools and other materials at local stores such as Kmart and Home Depot. A review of purchase orders by HUD showed random purchases with little accountability for what was bought.

"The practice of open-purchase buying results from a lack of pre-planning, planning, scheduling and management operating in a "crisis management' mode," the report states. "This method of operational activity results in inefficient and ineffective use of manpower and financial resources."

What HUD said

Among the findings in a blistering federal report on the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority:

+ The Housing Authority discriminated against certain groups, refusing to rent to unmarried parents and single people.

+ The authority misused money. For example, meals for Housing Authority board members were charged to the authority.

+ Board members didn't know enough about public housing and didn't provide sufficient oversight of operations.

+ There was poor management in a number of areas by the staff. For instance, the staff could not find records requested by federal officials.

+ There are no valid reasons for a continued vacancy problem in public housing units in Tarpon Springs.