Tampa, Florida --The federal government says Hillsborough County misused almost a million dollars in grants during its "Fight the Blight" campaign and it wants the money back.
The inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a scathing audit of the county's use of federal Community Development Block Grant money for these blighted areas. The audit shows serious problems in the department resulted in developers being helped by almost $1 million instead of low-income areas.
The audit says code enforcement cleanups like as part of the "Fight the Blight" programs in 2012 and 2013 were actually misusing the federal money in surrounding areas not qualifying as low-income neighborhoods.
The county used the money on areas that were "industrial and commercial properties," "farm and vacant land" that were "planned for development" and "new construction" in "residential properties" because commissioners wanted to ensure "developers didn't have to pay impact fees."
The inspector general says board minutes show the county commissioners wanted to have nonqualified zones classified as "no impact fee zones to protect the developers."
"It is wrong in every way and it appears to be fraudulent," said community activist Terry Flott.
Flott adds the action by the board to protect developers so they could avoid paying impact fees, "is the one that really pushed me over the edge."
Although the cleanups look beneficial to some areas and make the commissioners look good by improving blighted areas, the inspector general says it is obvious the grant money was used in areas that didn't qualify. For example, it points to the fact the Central Service Unit Maintenance Division encompassed an area that the funds were used for cleanup. The inspector general says that is clearly outside the rules.
However, Dexter Barge, the man who was in charge of code enforcement at the time, said: "There is illegal dumping all kinds of hazards" in the area the county cleaned up.
"We have to step in and we have to clean up and demolish these properties," he added.
Both Barge and Paula Harvey, head of Hillsborough's Affordable Housing Services, said the county had the blessing from the HUD office and did nothing wrong. The Affordable Housing Services office applied for the grants.
"We did everything we thought was required of us," Barge said.
A HUD audit says Hillsborough officials spent low-income grant money to help developers.
But the audit points out code enforcement officers were paid with federal money while they "performed work outside the target areas" and "the county commissioner's interests played a role" in the final decision of "target areas."
In addition, the audit slams county staff saying it was not familiar with the federal requirements associated with the grant, didn't verify eligibility of target areas, had weak management and accounting controls, lacked sufficient levels of monitoring reviews and did not exercise due care to make sure the expenditures were eligible.
The county responded that it did nothing wrong, can provide paperwork to back up its claims and insists the Jacksonville Office of HUD approved of everything that was done, but the inspector general report refutes those claims.
So, the question was put to Barge: "The board wanted to get areas qualified for the federal funds so developers wouldn't have to pay impact fees and wanted to know did that become part of the driving goal for your people?"
" I cannot speak, to that." Then, Barge said, "Absolutely not!" But then added, "I cannot speak to that because I'm not aware of that."
Meantime, Flott is outraged, saying, "That's your dollar and my dollar."
And now the federal officials want Hillsborough County to "pay back" those dollars.
"They need to be held accountable for this. They meaning whoever is responsible for this," Flott says.
However, to date no one is taking a hit for this. In fact, Barge who headed up code enforcement when this was happening ended up getting a promotion to assistant county administrator and got a $15,000 raise as well.