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Housing panel's fairness at issue

Critics say members of the city's Housing Roundtable have recommended grants for groups with which they have ties.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- When David McEachern, a member of a city committee considering community requests for federal dollars, finished grading a foot-high stack of applications in April, he'd given 15 groups a zero.

His highest score went to Neighborhood Housing Services, a home ownership and rehabilitation program which he knows all too well. A onetime chairman of the NHS board, McEachern now serves on its board of directors.

Still, he saw no problem with the 93 points (out of a possible 100) he gave NHS as a member of the city's Housing Roundtable, a 23-member group appointed by the mayor to advise on requests for federal community development block grant money.

"I'm not biased when it comes to NHS," McEachern said. "I just felt they were doing the best work. If they weren't doing anything to help the poor people bring up the deprived areas, I wouldn't have voted for them."

McEachern is not the only member of the Housing Roundtable with an interest in some of the groups he rates. Two other NHS board members and its executive director sit on the Roundtable. At least five other agencies seeking money from the city have ties to board members who could help them get it.

The obvious conflicts among board members are just part of the concerns raised recently about the city's Housing Roundtable. Additionally, some Roundtable members have complained that the city's staff rejected their original recommendations, setting aside money for large favored projects rather than grass-roots organizations.

* * *

Among the contentions:

City officials this year informed two organizations about $500,000 in grant money available from a previous year and allowed them to cut in front of the other groups to get the money.

Even after the Housing Roundtable agreed that groups scoring lower than 50 should be discarded from any further consideration, Mayor David Fischer and his staff rescued one of the failing groups, placing it at the top of the list.

Groups with grant writers on staff, whose applications were letter perfect, were given more consideration, while financially struggling groups with little or no grant-writing experience suffered in the Roundtable grading.

The City Council will meet in July to discuss the process before making a final decision on who gets what money, but some think the decisions have already been made.

"I feel the city has special pet projects they give the money to, and the small businesses don't get anything," said Carolyn Starling Cloud, president and administrator of Starling School and Daycare, which sought more than $1 million for its three child day care centers. "I think they have their minds made up as to who they're going to give the money to."

Since 1991, the city has used an ad hoc group of citizens to advise it on housing. The group also advised the city how it should spend community development block grants, federal dollars for neighborhood revitalization, economic development and community services.

A little more than a year ago, city officials decided the group needed to become an official city committee with more responsibility and a new name -- the Housing Roundtable.

Conflicts of interest were an issue. Some members of the advisory housing group also served in various capacities the very groups seeking money, but it was felt their experience and knowledge outweighed any potential harm.

City attorneys reviewing state ethics laws concluded that Roundtable members who are paid from groups seeking money would not be allowed to vote on their employer's applications. Askia Aquil, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services, and Gary MacMath, chief operating officer of Boley Centers for Behavioral Health Care, have abided by that decision.

But the rules for Housing Roundtable members who also serve as volunteers with these groups seem more murky. City attorneys believed that those Roundtable members had voluntarily decided not to vote on their own projects. That's not always the case.

As this year's Roundtable review began, each member of the board was asked to score 43 requests for federal money in 19 areas. Just about everyone involved complained that it required days, and in some cases a few all-nighters, to get it done within the time frame established by the city.

There is no indication that any conflicts of interest influenced the final outcome, but the spreadsheet of grades produced by the Roundtable showed how inconsistent and questionable the grading could be.

Some of the Roundtable members with volunteer ties to the organizations seeking money voted on their own applications; some didn't. Others, including Housing Authority Chairman J.W. Cate, feared a conflict and declined to give anyone a grade.

Cate, whose Housing Authority is to get $1 million from the community development funds this year, acknowledged it might be time to change the board. "It automatically sets up conflicts," he said.

Not only did he have the Housing Authority conflict, but he later found out that he had a conflict with Family Resources, an organization seeking $188,300 to renovate a runaway youth center. He also sits on its board.

"Fortunately for me, I didn't vote, so I got lucky on that one," he said.

"And my rebuttal to that is if you didn't vote on any of the projects submitted, why are you even there?" asked City Councilwoman Rene Flowers.

Several Roundtable members raised the argument that as volunteers, they serve on lots of boards and have lots of experience that helps in the decision-making process. And they don't serve these organizations on the Housing Roundtable.

"I'm not there as an NHS board member," said Denise Unley, a lending specialist with Bank of America and a Housing Roundtable member, who gave the NHS application a 76 out of 100 points. "I'm there as a business representative. I'm on the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Board (another applicant for the federal dollars). I've got my fingers in a lot of things."

Ultimately, none of the Roundtable board members influenced the grant awards. That's because there was such a small amount of money left to give after the city's staff got through with the projects they wanted funded.

At a January workshop, Robert Rowan, director of the city's Housing and Neighborhood Improvement, informed a few groups that some money might be available if they got their applications in quickly.

The city had been under fire from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend its community development dollars, which weren't being used as fast as the federal agency would have liked. Money was available from a few projects that were behind schedule.

Rowan said two of the groups he contacted got their applications in by the Roundtable's Feb. 16 meeting: the Center Against Spouse Abuse (which needed $400,000 to remodel a new community center), and the African Peoples Education and Defense Fund (which needed $177,155 for a gym).

To many, it appeared the two groups had received special treatment. The other groups had a March deadline for their applications, and most knew nothing about the extra money available until it was gone.

"That's not exactly how it worked, but I could see where that would be the perception," said Mike Dove, the city's Neighborhood Services administrator.

Dove explained that CASA had sought $175,000 last year for an addition to its existing building. It had been the highest ranked organization not to receive any money. It now wanted more money to remodel a new building.

The Roundtable did not approve the two additional projects initially. It was only after the two groups appeared before the City Council, which referred them back to the Roundtable for a second review, that the projects were funded.

On June 1, the council tentatively awarded both groups their requests, although contracts for the money must come before the council for final approval.

"My opinion on that was that these two groups had a window opened for them to come forward for some money, and we voted on that a month before everyone else's request was coming in," said MacMath, the Housing Roundtable member. "It seemed to me the process wasn't opened to enough people."

CASA has drawn a lot of the criticism for its ability to win grant awards. The group, which shelters battered women and children, seeks and receives federal emergency shelter funds from the city just about every year.

But some think it's time for other less-established groups, particularly those in the Challenge 2001 area, to start taking home more of the pie. City Councilwoman Rene Flowers and Chrisshun Cox, a Housing Roundtable member, pointed out that poverty rates in the area racked by civil disturbance nearly four years ago are always mentioned when the city seeks federal aid.

But when it is time to distribute the money, the day care centers, businesses and other organizations from the area get neglected.

Cox said that some of the more entrenched charities and organizations have experienced grant writers who know exactly what government is looking for in these applications.

CASA, with an operating budget of $1.8 million, is an example. Its development director, Renee McInnis writes on average 50 grant applications a year and had five sitting on her desk recently.

But Cox said she was forced by the grading formula to deduct points for several organizations, many of them in the Challenge 2001 area, that did not fill out their applications properly. Just because an organization lacks grant-writing expertise doesn't mean it should lose out, she said.

"CASA's a leech," said Cox, who thinks the organization gets too much money. "They're sucking the blood out of this city."

More like cleaning the blood up for battered women and their children throughout the city, CASA representatives said.

"The toll it takes on our community is quite brutal," said McInnis, CASA's development director. "Domestic violence is something that permeates all aspects of our community. It doesn't matter what someone's income is or their religion or their ethnic background."

After CASA and the African People's Education and Defense Fund got their approval to take the bulk of the money left from last year's process, the Roundtable still had about $3.7-million left to divide for this year.

That disappeared quickly too.

It seems that some of the Housing Roundtable members didn't know that the Jordan Park public housing community was to get $1 million off the top of the community development dollars for streets, sewers and the like. And most had no idea that the city wanted to give $948,400 to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Housing Roundtable, as a group, had scored that request at a 44, well below the cutoff at 50 for recommended funding.

St. Vincent de Paul got the nod anyway from the city's staff.

In the end, the Housing Roundtable had no say over community development block grant monies. The $3.5 million available is scheduled to go to city projects, a $591,600 city administration fee, several city economic development projects, Jordan Park and St. Vincent de Paul.

The Roundtable did have discretion over $237,750 in federal emergency shelter and housing funds. As required, the money went to shelters such as CASA, the Mustard Seed Inebriate Center and Brookwood's transitional housing facility among others.

All of the other applicants are now in line -- their only hope of getting money comes if Jordan Park or St. Vincent de Paul fail to use the money in a timely fashion.

"I don't think that's the way it was supposed to work," said Housing Roundtable member Karl Nurse, who is running for mayor this year. "Otherwise, what's the point of going through the charade? Ironically, St. Vincent de Paul didn't score that high, but I think you'll have to ask the mayor why it was more important than anything else."

St. Vincent de Paul operates a feeding center at 757 Arlington Ave. N, and late last year bought the abandoned Florida Hospital of St. Petersburg at 401 13th Street N. The Society had asked the city for $2.3 million to convert the hospital to single-room residences for the working poor and relocate its feeding center there.

On April 6, the city gave the Society a $30,000 community development grant for a site and architectural review, money that was allocated years ago, Rowan said.

Mayor David Fischer said the city promised St. Vincent de Paul four or five years ago it would help the organization move to a new location.

"Many of these organizations come back time and time again," Fischer said. "This is St. Vincent de Paul's turn."

Representatives of St. Vincent de Paul issued a press release Friday noting that they have neighborhood support for their project and that a new home could help them provide additional social services to the area's poor.

It has yet to be determined if St. Vincent de Paul will get its money. It's up to the City Council, which will hold a July 27 workshop and an Aug. 3 public hearing on the grant allocations.

City Councilwoman Kathleen Ford thinks the council should reject the award to St. Vincent de Paul.

"I'm very concerned about the mayor's recommendation, because he's treated this money as a private pot that he can do with as he pleases," said Ford, a former Housing Roundtable member. "The council still needs to look at whoever made the deal with St. Vincent de Paul, and there's a million dollars for community needs."

Flowers, who has received numerous calls from unhappy Roundtable members and grant applicants alike, has suggested the process start over. She acknowledges that's probably not realistic. At the very least, she said, it needs to change.

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