Housing board in disarray

Published May 23, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - The Brooksville Housing Authority now has three new board members to help take on two long-standing challenges.

The group must find as much as $1-million to fix dangerously deficient wiring at the authority's complexes, and hire a replacement for suspended executive director Betty Trent. Trent was indicted on charges of stealing federal money in November and is scheduled to go on trial next month.

"We have an opportunity to not only to move forward but to move forward in a positive manner, which we haven't had in a long time, " said Lara Bradburn, a member of the City Council, which appointed the new members Monday evening.

But it was not clear Monday whether most of the seven housing board members agreed that Trent needed to be replaced. Two of the new board members, Shannon Andra-Pettry and longtime local Democratic activist Steve Zeledon, said the board needs to hire at least an interim leader.

"It seems to me you can't have a functioning organization unless you have an executive director, " Zeledon said.

The third new member, Earl Watkins III, said Tuesday that he had not yet been told he had been named to the board and did not want to comment until he had confirmed his appointment.

Helen Fleming, who had served on the board since 1993, withdrew her application for another term, and the City Council chose not to re-appoint another board member, Allen Rhodes. Onnie O'Banner resigned from the board Monday.

Several housing board members have resisted removing Trent because she has not been convicted.

"There's some legal ramifications that could come into play" on replacing Trent, said board member Carl Pilcher, who was reappointed Monday.

Nobody disputes that the authority must fix the wiring at its two apartment complexes, Hillside Estates and Summit Villas. In March, an electrical contractor found aging and corroded wiring at Summit Villas that he said could have caused a fire or electrocution.

Jim Lane, the contractor, has since fixed some of the problems, but the conditions remain dangerous enough that Billye Fetrow, the authority's project manager, has been unable to rent four apartments at Summit Villas.

"We're talking about a job that could reach $1-million for both properties, if not more, " Pilcher said.

The authority, meanwhile receives less than $500, 000 annually from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, said Bill Kalbas, a HUD spokesman in Tampa.

"Right now, we are busted, " Pilcher said at a workshop last month.

Pilcher said he is confident that HUD could find the money to make the repairs in Brooksville. Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman in Washington, said Tuesday it cannot.

"There is not any additional money, " she said. "HUD doesn't have a lot."

Fetrow said she has also applied for federal grants and, earlier this month, sent a letter to the city of Brooksville seeking a $500, 000 loan.

Interim City Manager Steve Baumgartner advised against the loan, and Bradburn said Tuesday the city does not have the money available.

"We certainly don't have a half-million dollars sitting around, " she said.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6116.