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Federal agency asks Hernando and Brooksville housing authorities to merge

Five years ago, the Brooksville Housing Authority removed the tenants from Hillside Estates, shown here, and Summit Villas. Both remain empty today.
Five years ago, the Brooksville Housing Authority removed the tenants from Hillside Estates, shown here, and Summit Villas. Both remain empty today.
Published Aug. 2, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — A federal housing official has contacted the Hernando County Housing Authority to gauge interest in whether the agency would be willing to take over the Brooksville Housing Authority.

In a recent phone call, the official told the county's authority that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to find someone new to manage the properties under the city's authority because HUD does not believe the Brooksville authority has made any progress toward determining the future of its two empty developments. The director of the Brooksville authority has done nothing but making sure the grass is cut, the official said.

Members of the county authority's board and county executive director Donnie Singer discussed the issue at a meeting last week. But board members from the city's authority told the Tampa Bay Times they knew nothing about HUD's concerns and took issue with the characterization that neither they nor Brooksville Housing Authority executive director Tommy Brooks had been fulfilling their responsibilities.

HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said that was not true.

A letter Shanahan provided to the Times, written to Brooks by Ellis Henry, director of the office of public housing for HUD in Jacksonville on Nov. 1, 2016, details a series of problems the federal agency had with the Brooksville authority. The letter was basically to notify Brooks that Brooksville's public housing agency plan for the 2017 fiscal year had been rejected for numerous reasons.

For one thing, the annual submittal should have been signed by the chairman of the board, not by Brooks.

The more serious concern was that the Brooksville authority had not followed through with a plan approved in 2012 to dispose of its two vacant housing units within five years.

"There has been no attempt to sell either site,'' according to Henry's letter.

HUD is working with the authority to redevelop one of the sites. But Henry said the agency had to get an appraisal of the other and list it for sale or auction by January of this year.

Brooks' response to Henry's letter was to seek an extension, Shanahan said.

"In late April, HUD presented via phone call to Randy Woodruff, chairman of the board of Brooksville Housing Authority, the idea of merging operations with Hernando County or other local housing authority that would help Brooksville Housing Authority reduce its expenses,'' Shanahan said.

"Next step was inquiring if Hernando County Housing Authority would be interested in pursuing the option. A positive response would trigger the presentation of the proposal to the entire board of both housing authorities,'' she said. "HUD's objectives are ensuring tenants have decent, safe and sanitary housing, and the judicious management of federal funds.''

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Concerned about the dilapidated condition of their housing units, the Brooksville authority agreed to remove the tenants from Hillside Estates and Summit Villas five years ago. They worked with the county's authority to get Section 8 housing vouchers to find new residences for the displaced tenants. After that, officials said, they expected to merge with the county's housing authority, but that didn't happen.

The recent phone call from Henry got that conversation started again. But Paul Sullivan, who heads the county's authority, told his board last week that the answers he and Singer got to their questions were frustrating.

"I always thought it was ridiculous to have two authorities,'' he said. Despite his open mind about consolidation, Sullivan said he was uncomfortable with some of the answers to his questions. When he asked about the reason for the merger, he said, Henry told him "(the Brooksville authority) had seven years to get their act together'' and HUD was finally going to take action.

Henry also told the county that the city's authority had been paying its executive director for years to do little more than keep the grass mowed.

Sullivan wondered why it took so long to act if the federal agency was so concerned. He also was confused as to why Henry said that HUD would continue to provide funding for Brooksville but had no answers for how the county's authority would be reimbursed for management of the abandoned housing units.

Officials said Henry told the county that if it didn't take over the Brooksville agency, HUD would have to find a private management company to do so.

"I don't frankly see any advantage'' to taking over the city authority, Sullivan said. But he said he wanted more information.

Singer said that when he asked how the county would benefit from taking over the city's housing units, Henry's response was that it would be doing something good for the community. Singer told his board that he had more research to do and wasn't ready to make any recommendation, but would bring back a report at a future meeting.

Singer said Henry was supposed to meet with the city authority's board last month. But Cliff Manuel, vice chairman of the city's board, said that never happened. Both Manuel and fellow Brooksville authority member Gary Schraut said that a phone call from a Times reporter was the first they had heard about the issue.

Manuel said he couldn't speak for the board, but that he thought consolidation was the ultimate goal. However, several years ago when it was talked about, the Brooksville authority had to fix some internal problems, he said. Since that was done, he said, the Brooksville authority has been exploring various ways to resurrect housing units on the sites of the two developments, but without much success.

He noted that Brooks was the Brooksville authority's liaison with HUD and that he certainly does more than grounds upkeep.

Maintaining that he didn't know about the issue earlier, Manuel said, "It would have been nice for that presentation to be done to us first.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.