WASHINGTON -- The rest of America could become more familiar with the Bradenton Housing Authority -- at least for CSPAN viewers.
Sen. Charles "Chuck" Grassley called out the local agency in a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor, which aired on CSPAN 2.
Grassley, R-Iowa, has found a niche as a watchdog over housing authorities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expenses, and Bradenton was prominently featured in his speech, naming it one of the "most egregious examples of how ineffective Department of Housing and Urban Development has been at policing local house authorities."
"Bradenton, Florida, is an area of the country that was hit extremely hard during the
foreclosure crisis. But employees at the Bradenton Housing Authority only have to work four days a week," Grassley said. "They get two weeks off at Christmas, bonuses in June and December, and the option to cash out up to a month of sick leave twice per year.
"They get free use of a car purchased by the housing authority," he continued. "After 15 years of employment, they get to keep the car when they leave, or take $10,000 instead. It's their choice. Those are generous fringe benefits."
Grassley expressed the same concerns in a January letter to Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan.
Many issues Grassley raised are being worked on. Acting interim Director Darcy Branch said the car-or-cash retirement benefit was not acted on and will be eliminated.
"Over the weekend, I took the personnel policy handbook home and city and Manatee County policies, read through them and am revamping our policies and procedures manual in February," Branch said. "That policy is redacted."
Bradenton Housing Authority commissioners would have to approve the new manual, she said. The authority is scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 20 at the BHA office, 2002 Martin Luther King Ave. E.
BHA bonus and sick time policies were suspended last year after the commission fired previous Executive Director Wenston DeSue and his girlfriend, special projects manager Stephany West. The two are being questioned by HUD about trips to Jamaica, Busch Gardens and other destinations while on company time. No charges have been filed.
The authority also eliminated the Christmas break, and staff worked regular hours in December, Branch said. BHA and city employees work 40 hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a four-day work week.
As for BHA-owned cars, seven employees use the vehicles to inspect housing authority properties and workers must take them home because the housing authority doesn't have enough security to watch over the cars, Branch has said.
Grassley's comments were couched under the claim HUD hands out $4 billion in federal money to local housing agencies to help the poor, but much of the money is spent on high salaries and perks.
"There are a lot of people who make a nice profit from the poverty of others," Grassley said. "And the Obama administration has been helping a number of these profiteers while the poor suffer."
DeSue, hired by the authority in 2006, left making $171,060 for an agency with 249 public housing units, which is considered small by HUD standards. His father, William DeSue, the previous executive director, was paid a $25,000 consultant fee to train his son in 2006.
Bradenton's problems, however, almost seem mild compared with other troubled housing authorities.
The Atlanta Housing Authority has at least 22 employees who earn between $150,000 and $303,000 annually, Grassley said.
Tampa Housing Authority is paying $800,000 in salary and benefits for a public relations department while paying another employee $170,369 as a public relations consultant after the authority moved into a $7 million administrative office, he added.
The Harris County, Texas, authority is accused of having more than $1.7 million in excessive payroll expenses, spent $190,000 on statues, $14,500 on a helicopter, chartered bus and golf cart rental for a grand opening and $18,000 for letters written by Abraham Lincoln, Grassley said.
Grassley is also pushing to make salary data for executives more readily available.
"The Department is still not making this salary data public in a reasonable time frame," he said. "For example, the Obama administration refused to release the 2010 set of data for almost a year. I hope we don't have to wait a year to get the new data."
Grassley said federal funding is capped for executive salaries at $155,500 per employee, and while local funding can be used to create a higher salary, often what happens is housing authorities use accounting magic to get around the limit or claim salary over the limit comes from local funds.
Bradenton Housing Authority is in the midst of a salary survey to see how much employees as well as the next executive director should make. Results are expected in March.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.