Bradenton Housing Authority executive director to recommend staff salary cuts

BRADENTON -- Calling the data used in a salary-comparison study performed in April flawed, Bradenton Housing Authority Executive Director Ellis Mitchell Jr. will recommend staff salary cuts at a board meeting Thursday.

Atlanta-based Management Resource Group Inc., hired by Darcy Branch, finance director and then-acting executive director, concluded that salaries for BHA employees were comparable to those at other housing authorities. But Mitchell said the study skewed the numbers by not putting an emphasis on the other agencies' size or cost of living in the areas they are located.

"Some of the salaries used for comparison were from Virginia, and I know what the cost of living is there, so things like that skewed the numbers," said Mitchell, who earns $130,000 a year. "It made it look like Bradenton Housing Authority employees were getting paid similar and that is not the case. Our employees are overpaid, and that survey compared apples to oranges."

Mitchell said he will recommend up to $150,000 in salary cuts for the agency's seven full-time employees, but he did not clarify which positions would take the largest cuts. Mitchell said between salaries and fringe benefits

such as bonuses, longevity checks and other perks, it was time to shift some of that money to serving public-housing residents.

Mitchell, who started with BHA last month, complimented the general performance of the agency as a Department of Housing and Urban Development "high-performer," but said administrative restructuring remains a priority. For example, he said he plans to hire a full-time receptionist to free employees, who spend about one-third of their week rotating as a receptionist.

The remainder of the proposed savings, he said, needs to be directed toward creating more public housing and a program to make residents more self sufficient.

"What happens if you don't take steps to help a low-income family become self-sufficient is they will remain in public housing for 20-30 years," said Mitchell. "My plan is to get these families some skills training. HUD figured out how to move families through the system in order to help more families, and HUD allows these programs to be designed locally. That's what I want to do."

Virtually all of the public housing is in City Councilman Harold Byrd Jr's. Ward 3. While the city, for the most part, detached itself from the alleged Wenston DeSue financial-mismanagement scandal over the past year, it has remained involved in a more low-key manner with more involvement by the city's liaison, Ward 2 City Councilman Gene Brown.

Brown has been an active participant in the agency's monthly meetings, and Byrd plans to meet more with Mitchell.

"I wanted to take the opportunity to hear the direction he wanted to take as executive director and looking at those different statements, I'm pretty much on the same page," said Byrd. "He's making some bold moves as far as the salaries and restructuring and I'd like to see him take it one step further. I know he's been hired under contract and I would say that maybe that all of the salaries, including his, are out of line."

Byrd said if Mitchell is talking about cutting salaries, a good faith decision would be to, at least, not take a raise next year.

"But I did like what he had to say and it's good to see the direction the housing authority is going. However, I can't say it's time to sit back and breathe a big sigh of relief. Not at all. The task ahead is oversight and have something in place to make sure what happened, doesn't happen again."

Residents' frustration

Mitchell on Tuesday held a community meeting with about 25 people, most of whom are not public housing residents. One attendee complained that living in public housing with all of its rules and regulations is frustrating.

"My position is this: I come from an extremely poor background, but I made the sacrifices necessary to not be in that situation anymore," Mitchell said. "If you want assistance, we are here to help you, but there are rules that come with that."

He said the biggest reason people don't like public housing is because developments tend to be too crowded and HUD is moving toward mixed-development communities. He said the Washington, D.C., Housing Authority is tearing down public housing and building self-sustaining communities with stores and schools nearby.

"I think that is what HUD will be going with and that will be the standard in the next 10 years," he said. "The crowded public housing you see today will be no more."

Moving beyond the scandal

In September 2013, the FBI and HUD Office of Inspector General raided the Bradenton Housing Authority after investigating DeSue, former executive director, and his girlfriend, Stephany West, former projects manager. A criminal investigation is ongoing into alleged financial mismanagement, and despite the board firing DeSue, the BHA has struggled to regain public trust.

While the scandal rocked the agency at the local level, Mitchell said it's an all-too-common occurrence at housing authorities across the country and his years of experience working with HUD, including as an investigator, have given him the knowledge that HUD's ability to provide adequate oversight is lacking.

"OIG used to be three times the size it is today," said Mitchell. "My firm belief is that every government dollar given to an entity should have a portion of that spent on compliance. You just can't give large amounts of money away and expect everyone to do the right thing."

Mitchell has said from the beginning that the board should not be blamed, even though DeSue pushed a large budget-deficit amendment through what staff has claimed was an illegal closed meeting. At the same meeting, DeSue was able to get the board to approve for him a large bonus.

Makeup of the board

Mitchell said it's virtually impossible for a board to scrutinize details when they are volunteers who meet once a month. He has pledged to educate his board.

Mitchell also said he would like to see fresh faces on the panel.

"We have five board members and the size of the board for an agency this size is fine, but I'd like to see more board-member interest," he said. As an example, he cited Lois Gerber, who has been a commissioner for more than 22 years.

"That's a long time to be on the board," he said. "It burns you out and we need fresh faces."

Gerber said she would remain on the board if needed, but would agree to step down if Mayor Wayne Poston were to find a replacement when her term expires next December.

"It isn't anything I've thought about getting off of, but it's always nice to know that someone is behind you with fresh ideas," said Gerber. "People tend to get on these boards and think it's their board, but that's not what leadership is about. Board leadership is about always trying to replace yourself with someone better and I would like to see that happen. A board can only be as good as the people on it, and it's always a good idea to have people with fresh energy and fresh ideas."

Gerber said she will attend the Dec. 18 meeting with an open mind regarding Mitchell's suggestions to cut salaries, even though she has been fairly outspoken in protecting the staff during the search that led to Mitchell's hiring.

"The only protection I have ever given the staff is to say they have done a superior job," she said. "But we hired him to be an executive director and if we aren't going to listen to him, we shouldn't have hired him. I will listen to what he has to say. It's his staff and we have to operate in good financial parameters."

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.