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Housing board faces upheaval

At the Brooksville Housing Authority meeting Monday night, residents shouted at staffers, staffers shouted back, an alternate board member railed against the arrogance of administrators, and he and two of his colleagues walked out.

But after three hours of discussion, not much had changed at the authority, which last month was officially designated as "troubled" by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Executive director Betty Trent and her son, maintenance director Larry Trent, and project manager Joe Ann Bennett, all still have their jobs.

And the Housing Authority still has not adequately responded to the department's findings; when HUD labeled the Housing Authority as troubled on Oct. 31, it granted 45 days to respond to 22 remaining management problems.

One change was apparent: Board members seemed more determined to fix the issues cited and to do it quickly.

"All the c--- we've been written up for has to by-God stop," said newly appointed board member Pat Brayton. "As far as I'm concerned, we've wasted 20 of our 45 days."

The board agreed to meet more frequently, including the next two Mondays, to prepare a response. It also agreed to consider hiring a new consultant to help with this process.

This summer, HUD reported 23 problems with the Housing Authority's management of two apartment complexes, including violating federal tax laws and competitive bid policy and making large payments to staffers with little or no documentation showing work had been performed.

The Housing Authority responded to the findings in September. HUD answered on Oct. 31 by labeling the agency "troubled" and stating only one of the 23 problems had been resolved. The agency also took over the authority's spending for improvements at the department.

If the Housing Authority cannot convince HUD the problems have been fixed, the department could seize control of the entire operation, said Keith Swinely, the consultant seeking a contract with the Housing Authority.

A St. Petersburg Times investigation in October revealed other problems with the agency, including widespread hiring of family members and awarding of jobs to unlicensed contractors, many of whom were friends of the Trents. The board did not consider the issues raised in that article.

On Monday, the city of Brooksville, which appoints the authority's board members, also addressed the situation.

"I was dismayed and disheartened to receive the attached letter from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development," Mayor Ernie Wever wrote in a letter to the board. "I must strongly encourage the Board members to take a more active and serious position to alleviate these problems as continued to be notated by HUD."

Alternate housing board member Nathaniel Sims said he hears complaints constantly, mostly from residents of the two complexes the authority manages _ Hillside Estates and Summit Villas.

When he returned from a recent trip to New York, he said, "People came up to me before I could pull the luggage out of the car."

"Complaints are raining down. I mean raining. . . . And to be honest, I don't believe the people are lying because there are too many of the same kind of complaints. This thing sounds like a mess."

Bennett asked Sims what he wanted from the administration.

"Treat people like they are human beings," he said. "I want you to stop this arrogant attitude."

A tenant, Beverly Jones, said she had called Bennett over the weekend to complain that her heater was broken. At one point, she said, Bennett said it was not her problem and hung up on her.

Bennett, after arguing with Jones, told the board that Larry Trent had fixed the problem on Monday.

The Housing Authority had earlier hired a lawyer, Charlie Luckie, to determine whether Larry Trent's position as maintenance director violated state law on nepotism. He said it could be argued either way.

Paul Tanner, hired by the authority two years ago to supervise renovation at the apartments, addressed the problems HUD cited. Before he finished, Sims, another alternate, and a regular board member, John Frazier, walked out of the meeting without any explanation.

Tanner began by saying that "most of these things are not of any significance. In fact, none of them are of any significance."

He later acknowledged, though, that the authority had violated its competitive bid policy when hiring Les Mullins to a $26,000 contract to fix the aluminum soffits and eaves.

"That's one I dropped the ball on," Tanner said.

Mullins, the ex-brother-in-law of Betty Trent's sister _ who also worked at the authority _ was not licensed in Florida.

He also did shoddy work, said board member Carl Pilcher.

If Pilcher had been paid that much money for the job, Pilcher said, "I assure you I could have tacked it up in a better manner than he did."

Tanner also said the authority had no documentation to justify the $20,000 payment to Bennett in 2001. During the seven months Bennett received the payments, they totaled more than her base salary of $31,400 per year.

Brayton asked whether this was an advance payment or a loan.

It was neither, Bennett said. Instead, it was compensation for extra work she did, including inspections of the renovation work. She had agreed to pay it back after a HUD inspector had told her she might face criminal charges for receiving the payments.

"Joe Ann didn't take anything from the Housing Authority," Bennett said of herself. "I worked for that money."