Hillsborough may lose 2nd grant

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer
Published February 21, 2008

TAMPA - For a county struggling to assist its poorest residents find affordable housing, Hillsborough is proving careless with the federal grant money it receives for the cause.

Hillsborough County commissioners learned two weeks ago that they must return $2-million because their affordable housing staff failed to spend it quickly enough.

On Wednesday they learned that lax oversight could cause the county to lose another $827,000.

"If someone was working for me in the private sector, you would not have but one opportunity to lose $2-million," Commissioner Kevin White told county affordable housing officer Howie Carroll during a meeting Wednesday. "If any of the latest suspected mishap holds water, that's about $3-million that has come to this community that's gone bye-bye."

Commissioners are not permitted to direct county employees on how to do their jobs, or make employment decisions about them. That falls to County Administrator Bean, who does answer to the board.

And Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who raised the issue Wednesday, said she is displeased both with the news and with the fact that Bean failed on both occasions to alert the board to the possible problems. Commissioners learned about the losses from a community activist.

"That always leaves a bad taste in my mouth," Ferlita told Bean. "I think there should be more contact between you and us. I'm very displeased with that."

Bean said she is trying to get to the bottom of the latest potentially lost grant, which she said she learned about from Ferlita in an e-mail two nights earlier.

After the meeting she said that the latest trouble appears to predate Carroll's hiring a little more than a year ago.

A recent audit shows that the county qualified in 1997 for up $732,412 to renovate the Rainbow Oasis Apartments near the University of South Florida for affordable housing, an amount later increased. However, the audit indicates that the county didn't adequately monitor the project, and apartments were rented at rates not considered affordable.

Bean said that the county is working with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, hoping to resolve the situation in a way that allows the county to keep the money.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.