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Tarpon housing agency must get house in order

It is time to clean house at the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority. A blistering report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development confirms that the Housing Authority is in complete disarray and has hit bottom. Executive Director Tim Keffalas must be fired, another housing authority should assume control until an experienced director is appointed and Tarpon board members need to be trained to better handle their oversight responsibilities.

The HUD report describes the pitiful situation and Keffalas' inability to cope with the overwhelming problems. Most appallingly, Keffalas acknowledged to HUD that he has refused to rent apartments to unmarried adults with children and to single people. He has intentionally discriminated against the people who often need public housing the most, in blatant violation of federal Fair Housing laws. No wonder it has been difficult to fill vacant units.

Relying on his narrow-minded moral views instead of federal law to screen tenants would be enough to warrant Keffalas' dismissal by itself. But the HUD report portrays a housing authority that is monumentally mismanaged. Records are poorly kept when they are kept at all. The waiting list for apartments is a mess. There is no clear plan for fixing vacant units, and units that have been repaired stood vacant and unprotected for so long that vandals damaged them again. While the Housing Authority renovates its offices and runs up telephone bills on unnecessary cellular phones, the grass is unmowed and screen doors are missing from units.

The bottom line: Public housing in Tarpon Springs is an embarrassment. The most direct victims have been the poor who so desperately need housing. But everyone has been harmed by the waste of taxpayer dollars and the black eye the Housing Authority has given a city with many bright spots, from its bustling downtown to its rich cultural history.

Although Keffalas has been the flash point, the Housing Authority board members must shoulder substantial responsibility. Some current board members were around when Keffalas was selected over more qualified applicants.

The board, which is appointed by the City Commission, also has failed to set proper policies. It paid $6,000 to a private firm to write policies and procedures, then never adopted them. Between April 1995 and March, board members met after monthly meetings at Pappas restaurant for dinner and improperly charged meals to the Housing Authority. As much as $1,700 was misspent for food, flowers and Christmas cards. HUD has correctly demanded that the money be repaid.

After failing to win re-election to the City Commission in March, Helene Pierce actually volunteered to be appointed to the Housing Authority. Her arrival appears to have coincided with the end of the free meals, and she has helped develop job descriptions and evaluations for Housing Authority staff. But she needs more help. Whether a city the size of Tarpon Springs should have its own housing authority is a legitimate question; housing authorities in much larger cities have had difficulties managing money and keeping units in good shape. At the very least, Tarpon Springs city officials need to actively recruit more qualified members for the Housing Authority board.

The Tarpon Springs Housing Authority meets Thursday. After Keffalas departs, board members must take significant, immediate steps to restore public confidence in public housing. They must ask the Pinellas Housing Authority, or perhaps the Clearwater Housing Authority, to assume temporary command. The Pinellas Housing Authority did this for nine months before Keffalas was hired in 1994, and it needs to reconsider its decision not to take over public housing in Tarpon Springs.

Once help is secured, the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority needs to interview qualified applicants to succeed Keffalas and offer a salary that will attract top-notch talent. Perhaps it can recruit one of the applicants from the last search. Board members also should invite the city attorney or another expert to explain ethics laws so they will avoid misjudgments. They should invite HUD or officials from nearby housing authorities to coach them on establishing goals, overseeing budgets and working with the executive director.

There is a demand for safe, well-maintained public housing in North Pinellas. Tarpon Springs residents should demand that their housing authority bring order to the chaos, repair and rent as many units as possible, and stop embarrassing their city.