Bean seizes affordable housing reins

Saying the troubled agency has not had adequate oversight, she will assume direct control.

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

TAMPA - Seeking to quell a festering crisis, Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean will take over direct control of her beleaguered Affordable Housing Office today.

In a memo infused with political overtones, Bean told commissioners she doesn't think the office has gotten proper leadership from her top deputy, Wally Hill. So she plans to oversee it herself.

The decision is expected to draw discussion at today's commission meeting. It follows weeks of news reports detailing how the county has lost roughly $2.8-million in federal affordable housing grant money.

Most of the money, about $2-million, was not earmarked in time to meet a deadline. The rest had to be returned after it was awarded to three residential complexes that failed to provide enough affordable housing.

As a result, affordable housing officer Howie Carroll has faced increasingly withering questions from commissioners. Until today, Carroll reported directly to Hill, who did not come to his aid during the grilling.

"After many weeks of concerns that have not been adequately resolved, it is clear that responsibility for oversight must be moved directly under my leadership," Bean wrote. "I no longer believe that proper support was given to Howie Carroll and the Affordable Housing Office in its prior reporting relationship."

Hill deferred questions to Bean.

Bean said in an interview late Wednesday that she is not throwing Hill, her top deputy since 2004, under the bus. Rather, she is seeking to get control of the situation.

"If I'm going to go down over this issue, I'm going to go down knowing everything I could, and knowing it rests on my shoulders and not anyone else's," Bean said. "I've invested too much time to let something like this be the last thing people remember about my contribution to this county."

Bean's decision comes on the heels of another memo she wrote that in part pointed blame away from Carroll, hired away from a similar job in Clearwater in October 2006. That memo argued that the contracts became a problem before his arrival.

However, Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who has been particularly critical of Bean on this issue, said her office received evidence that suggests Carroll directly contributed to the problem. She has also dressed Bean down for not informing commissioners of developments.

"She has to take some responsibility," Ferlita said. "I wish she had done it sooner. Better late in coming than not at all."

In her memo, Bean said she will enlist the help of county debt management director Mike Merrill and two other employees. The selection of Merrill, distinct among department directors in commanding almost universal support from commissioners on financial matters, is clearly a further step to allay their concerns.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has also urged Bean to get a handle on the issue, welcomed her decision to oversee affordable housing.

"This has been an area where local governments have experienced activity that has created problems," Sharpe said. "These problems, if ignored or managed improperly, can become severe when you're talking about federal dollars. I don't want to see that."

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