Pay issue haunts Hillside project
By DAN DeWITT
BROOKSVILLE -- The lawns at Hillside Estates are mowed and free of trash. The apartment buildings have all been repainted, their kitchens fitted with new cabinets and tile.
And the drug dealers that prowled the streets on foot and on bicycles three years ago are nowhere to be seen -- at least not during the day.
"It used to look like a junkyard in here," said Abe Wormley, 72, a Hillside resident who sat in a lawn chair outside his apartment last week.
"It's like a different project now."
But this renewal at Hillside Estates has also brought a crisis for the public agency that manages the complex, the Brooksville Housing Authority.
A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report on the Housing Authority issued in July found widespread mismanagement of Hillside Estates and misuse of federal funds.
The most serious item in the report, according to current and former Housing Authority board members, was six payments totaling $20,000 made to the second-highest-ranking staffer, program manager Joe Ann Bennett. The payments came from grant money designated to renovate the complex.
Bennett and the authority's executive director, Betty Trent, said the money was for extra administrative and supervisory work Bennett did in connection with the renewal effort. The HUD report calls it a loan. In either case, the report states, it was inappropriate.
"We determined the money was paid in violation of (department policy for extra work) and in violation of the Housing Authority's policy of pay advances, which states, "(Brooksville Housing Authority) does not provide pay advances on unearned wages,' " the HUD report said.
"When you go messing with federal money, that's bad," said former board member Andy Williams.
"They might even shut that place down."
Closing the complex or recommending disciplinary action -- such as the firing of Bennett or Trent -- seems unlikely at this time, said Linda Allen, a HUD spokeswoman in Atlanta. And nothing will be done, Allen said, until the department reviews a response to the findings that the Housing Authority completed Sept. 13.
"Normally, when we do that kind of monitoring, it's a process of give and take until things are brought back into order," she said.
"These reviews are not meant to beat anyone over the head. They're meant to make the housing authorities run better."
Though some board members, especially Williams, have questioned Trent's management practices for several years, the report covers the period after a change in federal law allowed small housing authorities to receive grants for repairing and upgrading complexes.
The Brooksville Housing Authority manages 126 government-subsidized apartments, most of them at Hillside Estates, a 29-year-old housing complex in south Brooksville. The authority received $470,000 in renovation grants in 2000 and 2001 and is in line to receive $225,152 this year.
Williams said that last year he complained to HUD about several issues, including the hiring of Trent's son, Larry, as the authority's head of maintenance and the lack of documentation for overtime pay. Current board member Carl Pilcher said he was also alarmed when he heard about the loan to Bennett at a board meeting earlier this year.
"It was brought up and just dropped, and I started thinking about it and said, "This is not kosher.' "
He called HUD offices in Jacksonville, he said, which prompted the department to come to Brooksville and review the authority's records in April and May.
The report identifies 24 violations of HUD or housing authority policy.
Some of the agency's findings seemed minor, board members said. For example, the authority was cited for failing to display a poster informing people of their rights to fair housing. And in some cases, Trent and some board members said, the HUD inspectors seemed to ignore obvious evidence that contradicted their findings.
It cited the authority for not having an approved budget for 2001 or 2002. In fact, Trent said, the minutes of meetings clearly showed budgets were approved. The department found the authority had failed to complete an audit of its utility service, as it is required to do every five years. Trent displayed a copy of such an audit in her office last week.
She also had documents showing the authority had advertised renovation work for competitive bidding while the HUD report said it had not.
"There's a lot of (documents) they could have asked me for, and there's some things they just overlooked," she said.
"I was somewhat dismayed by this report," said Paul Tanner, a public housing consultant the Housing Authority hired to oversee the renovation work.
But he also agreed with Pilcher and others that the allegations concerning Trent's handling of funds were more serious.
HUD found a lack of documentation for travel expenses, that the money employees received in their paychecks didn't match what they had claimed on their timecards, and virtually no justifications for generous compensatory time payments made to several employees, including Trent's son.
"No timecard records were kept for Larry Trent's (work on the renovation effort). The executive director told us that the employee had to go back in time to reconstitute the hours worked, put them all on a list, sign it and submit it," the report said.
During 2001, the same year Bennett received the additional $20,000, she recived $3,831 in compensatory pay, the report said, while "Betty Trent received at least $6,977."
Trent said she never paid herself or any other employee for more time than they worked. She said she simply failed to keep track of the hours.
Likewise, she said, she failed to fill out vouchers for her out-of-town trips, which in any case are rare. She never took money she wasn't owed, she said.
She also maintained that Bennett earned the payments she received between May and December of last year and that Tanner approved them. Both she and Bennett have worked many evenings and weekends since the renovation effort began, she said.
The HUD report shows the authority issued four checks to Bennett for $3,500 each, before income tax, Social Security and other deductions, and two for $3,000 each. During the seven months Bennett received the payments, they totaled more than her base salary, which is $31,400 per year.
Bennett "was doing a lot of extra work that was not included in her normal day-to-day duties," Trent said.
The only problem, she said, was that "we didn't document the hours. I couldn't tell you what she did on this particular day."
She said HUD referred to the payments as loans because Bennett has agreed to pay the money back. She has already returned $7,000.
Trent said she thought the payments were legitimate because Tanner had approved them.
But that's only partly true, Tanner said.
"They asked me if it was possible to pay staff out of capital funds, and I said yes," Tanner said.
"I assumed they knew everything had to be backed up (with documentation). You don't just go paying people without backup," he said.
But Tanner generally thinks the authority has done a good job with the renovation, and that it is unfortunate the HUD report has obscured that fact.
"I'm rather proud of what they've done down there," he said.
Not everyone familiar with the situation agrees. Williams said Tanner, not Trent or Bennett, is responsible for the turnaround at Hillside Estates. And he suspects they have shamelessly padded their paychecks for work they didn't do.
"You can ask any of the residents. Those people shut down there at 3:30 or 4 (p.m.) every day," Williams said.
Most of the acting board members, however, even Pilcher, said the report overstates the problems at Hillside.
"Other than the loan, I think most of it was unfounded," Pilcher said.
The board members have the power to remove Trent and Bennett. But neither Pilcher nor any of the other current board members interviewed favored doing so.
And most of them give the two substantial credit for the improvements at Hillside, which Pilcher said have been remarkable.
In 1999, the situation seemed hopeless, he said. Drug dealers dominated the atmosphere at the complex, hassling visitors, intimidating residents, throwing trash on the ground and playing loud music at night.
To deal with the problems, the Brooksville Police Department opened a substation in the complex and persuaded the City Council to close one exit to the complex that drug dealers used as a getaway route.
The authority began weeding out tenants who were supporting the criminals. The renovations encouraged the remaining residents to take pride in the appearance of the complex, Pilcher said as he walked around the complex last week.
He pointed to several apartments where residents had planted shrubs and palms.
"What we noticed immediately was that people started taking pride in the overall appearance of the place," he said.
There remains some drug traffic at Hillside, especially in the evenings. But the atmosphere now allows residents to live productive lives.
"Now, you can get to sleep so you can get up and go to work in the morning," he said. "You can raise your kids in a clean, safe environment."
-Dan DeWitt covers the city of Brooksville, politics and the environment. He can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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