Bradenton Housing Authority approves $5,000 raise for exec director amid staff salary cuts

BRADENTON -- The Bradenton Housing Authority executive director received a $5,000 raise just as the BHA Board has been slashing staff salaries.

Bradenton Housing Authority Board members acknowledged their dilemma Thursday as it became time to evaluate the performance of new Executive Director Ellis Mitchell Jr., hired in November.

In a special meeting earlier this month, board members began the evaluation process. Individual evaluations scored Mitchell high for making decisions that have turned the agency around. Moves taken by Mitchell have steadied the agency financially after years of mismanagement under former Executive Director Wenston DeSue, who has pleaded guilty to one count of theft of federal funds and is awaiting sentencing.

Mitchell has been praised for making tough decisions and restoring public trust. When Mitchell was hired, his salary requirement was $140,000. The average salary range for an executive director in a similar-sized agency is about $150,000. Mitchell agreed to start at $134,000 with the understanding the board would revisit his salary after six months.

Mitchell requested Thursday the board raise his salary to $140,000, but it comes at an awkward time. Attorney Ric Gilmore said the board had two options:

Deny the raise until his annual review in six months.

Give him a raise and restart his annual review date.

Commissioner Rigo Rivera said Mitchell's scores were "phenomenal and I think he's done an above-average job. My only challenge is that we have been through a lot of payroll cuts and that gives the wrong message to the community and the staff."

Rivera said he had to reassure staff there would be no further pay cuts "and now we are giving a raise to the person that cut their salaries."

Commissioner Norma Dunwoody said the salary cuts were proper because the employees were overpaid. Mitchell had asked the board for even deeper cuts, but the board insisted they be no more than about 5 percent.

Dunwoody felt the full $6,000 was too steep, however, and suggested a $5,000 increase.

"He's done an exceptional job and I was against these high staff salaries from the get go," she said.

Commissioner Charlie Grace suggested a $3,000 increase while board Chairman Napoleon Mills and new board member Bonnie Belford, who was sworn in Thursday, supported the $6,000 increase. The board ultimately settled on a $5,000 raise based on Mitchell's review scores.

Gilmore said the decision "gives additional credibility." The raise passed 4-1 with Grace dissenting.

Gilmore applauded the board for its diligence and being concerned about the message it sent to staff and the community, "but when you give someone a good evaluation and there is nothing to follow it, that sends a mixed message, too."

Finance director resigns

BHA Finance Director Darcy Branch submitted her resignation effective June 23 citing medical reasons. Branch was the whistleblower who led to the BHA being raided by federal agents in September 2013. A lengthy investigation concluded earlier this year with charges being filed first against Stephany West, former BHA projects director, and DeSue.

Branch, who earned more than $120,000, led the troubled agency through the first year of difficult times following the firing of DeSue and West until Mitchell was hired. Thursday's meeting was moved up one week to address Branch's resignation.

Mitchell presented an emergency item to the board to spend $15,000 to bring in an accounting firm to address the agency's needs for the next 90 days while training staff on various financial duties.

Mitchell's plan is to spread Branch's duties to other staff members and outsource accounts payable and preparing financial reports, something Mitchell said a certified accountant can do. He said the cost to do so would be about $24,000 a year, essentially saving about $97,000 a year in salary.

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