By LISA MACNEIL
Hernando Sun Reporter
The Hernando County Housing Authority (HCHA) was presented with the prospect of an interlocal agreement with the Brooksville Housing Authority (BHA), where the HCHA would become a managing entity of the BHA. The discussion ended in a 4-0 vote to review the agreement, which has yet to be finalized, in a July meeting.
The troubled Brooksville Housing Authority (BHA) lost its Executive Director effective May 31, 2019. The BHA has appeared in the news several times over the past few years, under scrutiny of HUD and other agencies over its failure to move forward with any sale or future plan for Hillside Estates and Summit Villas, two housing developments which have been abandoned since 2012.
The two abandoned developments have become a favorite site of urban explorers, videographers and photographers who specialize in capturing long-abandoned, yet mostly-intact structures with curious histories, sometimes adding their own spooky narratives.
In recent months, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has been in contact with both the Brooksville authority, as well as Hernando County, seeking a resolution to the stasis.
Of the BHA, only attorney Ricardo Gilmore and alternate board member Barry Meindl were present at the meeting. Most of the discussion took place between Gilmore and the Hernando County Housing Authority members, most of the questions from Chairman Sullivan.
Gilmore began, “As you know, the Brooksville Housing Authority is undergoing a transition. As of May 31, (BHA) no longer has an Executive Director. What it does have is a sale that is finalizing for Hillside Estates for $1.7-million.”
“We additionally have the Summit (Villas) property, which the board members at this juncture would like to work through with HUD to redevelop into affordable housing. We have asked, and are proposing that the HCHA consider an interlocal agreement with the BHA.”
Gilmore met with Sullivan and Singer prior to this meeting to present a basic format for such an agreement. Gilmore also reported that the base agreement is currently in use between the City of Brooksville and the BHA “for temporary services that the City of Brooksville are providing to the housing authority.”
The proposed interlocal agreement entails HCHA essentially running BHA for a period of time, for a fee. Gilmore noted that since there are no residents living on active properties within the purview of the BHA, the duties of the HCHA are substantially reduced.
“The additional interest in HCHA, mainly because of Mr. Singer, is the desire to develop the Summit property. Since Hernando County has already been successful in developing affordable housing in the same way we’d like to do with Summit, we know that (Singer’s) expertise would be very valuable in moving that process forward.”
Sullivan added that his concerns were about an outstanding $46,000 water bill, and that a six-month severance package was provided to the outgoing Executive Director, who “received a salary for seven years when he had no responsibilities other than to get the lawn cut.”
Sullivan reported that he called the City of Booksville’s utilities department to ask about the water bill, and was told, “There is no such thing as a $46,000 water bill.” Sullivan added that the representative told him that he was calling the wrong agency, because “Hillside Estates belongs to the county housing authority.” Elucidating the conversation further, he reported that the city representative told him that they were not allowed to turn off water service to the development.”
Gilmore wasn’t clear if the water bill was the result of one bill, or an accumulation of fees over time. To his understanding, the water was left on at the development because the BHA maintained an office on the property until approximately three months ago. Gilmore stated he had heard second-hand accounts of water leaks, and surmised that the large bill may be the result of fees that “shouldn’t have occurred anyway.”
Gilmore added that it was BHA’s responsibility to minimize costs.
Regarding the severance pay to Tommy Brooks, Gilmore told the board that his was not a termination for cause, “but a termination that was necessitated by our funding source indicating what they would and wouldn’t pay for going forward.” This being the case, Brooks is contractually eligible to receive the severance package.
Gilmore added that Brooks’ salary was adjusted to part-time in 2018.
Sullivan expressed concern stemming from his conversation with the city’s utility department, “I’m concerned that we find out later on, if we agree (to the interlocal agreement) that there’s another huge financial issue out there, and it will be our responsibility to take care of it.”
“I can assure you that it won’t be your responsibility,” Gilmore replied. “What you would be doing if you sign this interlocal agreement is — (BHA) would be contracting with you, similar to if you were a private management company. It doesn’t make you liable for any of the debts of the (Brooksville) housing authority. It just makes you a manager.”
David Gonzalez asked about the goals and objectives of the BHA in the future, with no Executive Director, and no visible responsibility if the interlocal agreement goes into effect.
“According the board and their vision,” Gilmore started, “selling Hillside (for above appraised value) … the thought is that Summit, given its location, and given the fact that last year, BHA bought a piece of property adjacent to Summit, gives the potential for developing new affordable housing. That’s what we’ve told HUD we’d like to do.”
As for the future of the BHA, Gilmore said, “Housing authorities, once they’re created … remains a housing authority [sic], regardless of whether or not it has housing stock or residents, pursuant to current Florida law. The way the interlocal agreement would work is; the Brooksville board would still be in place. They will still meet, with (Singer) as the manager, would report to the BHA and manage their funds, but not (HCHA’s) funds. If development proceeds, (Singer) would manage how that development moves forward.”
According to Gilmore, BHA has been working with a developer for nearly two years. If the interlocal agreement is signed, then the HCHA would determine if that developer is the best fit going forward. If not, a new developer would be chosen by the HCHA to redevelop the Summit property.
Gonzalez asked Singer at this point how such an arrangement would affect Singer’s duties for the Hernando County Housing Authority. After some discussion of whether or not the state law could change, and potentially allow for the dissolution of housing authorities, Singer answered the immediate question that the BHA oversight would involve about 20 hours per month, at a rate of $1000 per month.
Singer also said, “There is that possibility down the road that the legislation will pass that will allow us to merge housing authorities, and by doing that, we put this all under one roof… we really don’t need two housing authorities in this county.”
Gilmore concurred that if the law allows, a merger could work. He went on to say that the BHA is not destitute, but it currently holds over $400,000, and there are also additional funds available from HUD that depend on “tweaking to the annual plan.”
Shawn Andrew asked Gilmore about Hillside Estates sale, and where the sale is on the real estate timeline. Gilmore answered that there is a closing expected before the end of June.
Chairman Sullvan raised an additional concern, and asked Gilmore, “Will we find out later, when this is all done, that the person who is buying the property is somehow connected with people on your board?”
Gilmore answered, “I don’t know if you’ll find that out or not. As far as we know, they’re not.”
Sullivan asked, “So you’ve talked to all of your board members and asked them if they’re related or connected or associated with the purchaser?”
Gilmore responded, “I have not. But I will do that.”
Sullivan also expressed annoyance that no one from the BHA was present to answer questions. However, Barry Meindl, an alternate on the board was recognized. Meindl stated that he has attended every BHA meeting since his nomination, and said, “From what I’ve understood here so far, I do believe this could be a very positive partnership for everyone involved … the potential to develop this property which is in a great location could be beneficial to everyone.”