TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s affordable housing director said Wednesday the county will not have to repay more than $1 million in grant money that federal investigators said was misspent.
Housing director Paula Harvey told county commissioners she had been assured by Gary Causey, an official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Jacksonville office, that the county will not have to pay back money spent on code enforcement in blighted neighborhoods.
“We’re not going to pay anything back,” Harvey said. “We have no reason to; we’ve done nothing wrong.”
Causey could not be reached Wednesday, but in an email, HUD spokeswoman Gloria Shanahan said the agency is “reviewing the recommendations from the Office of the Inspector General and continues to be in conversations with the county about possible corrective actions.”
In a July 7 report, HUD’s Office of Inspector General recommended the county pay back $1.02 million in Community Development Block Grant money that auditors said was spent improperly. Among other things, the report said the money was spent in target areas that included census blocks with upper-middle-class neighborhoods. That’s a violation of HUD policies.
The auditors said county commissioners in 2003 drew target area boundaries for purposes other than rehabilitating poor residential neighborhoods. Instead, commissioners wanted to use federal funds to replace impact fees owed by developers for new roads, water and sewer facilities to service their developments, the auditors said. Also, the report concluded, commissioners wanted rural areas to get a share of the grant money, spending it in open, rural areas, instead of blighted urban neighborhoods.
Harvey dismissed those accusations, saying the HUD office in Jacksonville had never raised objections to the target area boundaries, even though the county files annual reports to that office.
She said HUD headquarters in Washington, D.C., recently ruled the county is not required to keep information from the 2010 census in order to justify how the target areas were drawn that year.
“The whole rationale for that repayment is basically off the table,” she said.
The inspector general’s auditors reviewed census data used to draw the target areas in 2003 and found six of the nine areas included census blocks that did not meet low- to moderate-income demographics required under the block grant program.
Harvey’s reaction to that finding: Economic conditions in the target areas have improved due to tens of millions of dollars in HUD funding spent on infrastructure in the once-rundown neighborhoods.
“If they were still in the same sad shape that they were in 10 years ago, that would have meant we didn’t accomplish anything, and I don’t believe that,” Harvey said.
The county will still have to supply documentation to show code enforcement officers billed their work in deteriorated neighborhoods appropriately.
The inspector general’s report said code enforcement officers often worked outside target areas and charged the federal program for cleanup and demolition work that should have been paid with local property taxes.
The Office of Inspector General is separate from HUD, and its investigative findings are only recommendations. HUD makes the final decisions on proposed penalties.
Harvey said the county will soon bring in a consultant to review data received in June from the 2010 census. That information will be used to readjust the county’s block grant target areas.