Florida law blocks consolidating Bradenton, Manatee housing authorities

Legislation will not be ready until at least 2015 session

cschelle@bradenton.comNovember 24, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston says he wants to hand the troubled Bradenton Housing Authority off to the Manatee County Housing Authority, but holes in Florida law are preventing any quick transition.

Florida Statute Chapter 421, which establishes powers to create and manage a housing authority in the state, hasn't seen many updates since its creation in 1940. The Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials is currently working on language to allow consolidation on the municipal and county levels.

But legislation likely is not going to be submitted before Florida's 2015 legislative session because a series of issues must first be settled to avoid unintended consequences, said Corey Mathews, executive director of Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

The Bradenton Housing Authority has been under investigation by the federal Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General since September. The investigation prompted the authority's board of commissioners to fire executive director Wenston DeSue and director of special projects Stephany West, who is also in a relationship with DeSue.

Poston, who has powers to appoint housing authority commissioners and remove them with the consent of the board, wants the Manatee County Housing Authority to take over the board. If that happens, Gov. Rick Scott would appoint its board members. And it's a move Poston says he wanted to do well before federal officials raided the housing authority's office.

"I'd like to give it to the county, which is what I tried to do for six years, but HUD says I can't do it," Poston said. "Well, you can do it."

Poston said he isn't sure why HUD said no.

"I don't know. It's HUD," the mayor said.

Public housing authorities

were created out of the Federal Housing Administration, predecessor of Housing and Urban Development, to allow a series of local housing authorities all following a set of standards across the country, instead of setting up federal agencies in each community. Housing authority commissioners are either appointed by a mayor in a municipality, or by another governing body for a county, such as a county commission/council or in Florida's case, the governor.

Darcy Branch, interim executive director of the Bradenton Housing Authority, told the Herald in a previous interview that consolidation was not being considered at this time.

Rob Rogers, executive director of Manatee County Housing Authority, would like the two agencies to consolidate, too, because they serve much of the same population, especially with the Section-8 voucher program. Consolidation is not an active discussion by his board, he said, but it has been discussed in past years.

The problem with Florida law, Mathews said, is that while it allows for housing authorities from two different counties to merge to create a regional housing authority, the law is silent on allowing municipal authorities to merge with each other or with a county authority.

"I don't think it was an intention of the legislation that this shouldn't happen, but it was more of how it would be constructed," he said.

The association's membership considered pushing for this legislation for the 2014 session until it found numerous issues to be resolved last week, he said.

"We've got to make sure that we're careful to recommend something as an association that is going to be good for every housing authority in the state," Mathews said.

Appointment power is a key issue, he said. What will likely be the solution is to provide for a split of appointment powers, for instance, if it's between two mayors or between the mayor and governor.

The Alachua County Commission, however, already has power under Florida Statutes Chapter 421 to make housing authority appointments instead of the governor, he said. That power was granted as part of a special act approved in 1971.

Pasco County commissioners wanted special power to appoint its housing authority board after lax financial management, but the bill died in the Florida Senate rules committee in 2012.

Getting feedback from the Bradenton Housing Authority is proving to be difficult as the housing authority commissioners have avoided media calls and contact and canceled last week's meeting.

Mathews said the Bradenton Housing Authority has to fix itself before it can consider consolidation.

"If we're having that conversation with them, I'd tell them to worry about getting their house in order first," Mathews said, who added that HUD officials told him that Bradenton Housing Authority is "moving in the right direction."

Mathews is not privvy to the investigation's details, but said that management issues and investigation are being handled separately.

"The concerns are enough to warrant a valid investigation," he said.

A team from HUD is helping the Bradenton authority now to prevent the authority from going into receivership because its financial outlook is too dismal, he said. Receivership is a rare move for the worst authorities in the nation that are unable to provide basic services to its residents.

Still, even if a housing authority is facing crisis, a consolidation statue should make it clear that consolidation ought to be voluntary, Mathews said.

"We would strongly oppose any system that would be any sort of takeover attempt," he said. "Everyone needs to evaluate the local needs and how to best put something together for the mission of the housing authorities."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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