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Demand straight answers to housing venture questions

Pasco commissioners' performance Tuesday was nothing short of reckless. They allowed themselves to be bullied into backing a moderate-income housing venture Tuesday afternoon just hours after rejecting the proposal as an ill-timed gambit that could slow a real estate market recovery.

The decision came amid threats of litigation, a rushed legal opinion from their own counsel, an inaccurate portrayal — provided by the private sector partner — of the county's previous involvement and a supposed, but unconfirmed, immediate deadline that precluded a commission delay.

Toss in that one of the private partners is the brother of Commission Chairman Ted Schrader and the whole thing deserved a thorough vetting that went lacking.

Schrader announced the conflict and did not vote. He should have avoided all appearances of conflicts by handing the gavel to vice chairman Jack Mariano and remaining mum. Instead, he helped guide the public debate by prodding Mariano to delineate his exact objections.

The approved plan calls for the county to contribute $450,000 from existing housing program money as a match for a $2.5 million state grant to build 30 single-family homes marketed as so-called workforce housing near Zephyrhills.

This idea made more sense when it was first pitched five years ago amid a booming housing market that pushed purchase prices beyond the reach of the targeted beneficiaries: entry-level educators, public safety workers and other government employees. Then, the Pasco School District, Pasco County and builder Tom Smith of Ten Oaks Development Corp. applied for a $5 million state grant to build town homes on school district land in New Port Richey and standalone single-family residences in Ten Oaks, a subdivision off Eiland Boulevard, west of the city of Zephyrhills.

State funding disappeared temporarily and the project was scaled back in 2011 to exclude the school district land. But, the commission cancelled its participation last year after being asked to raise the county's contribution from $700,000 to $1.3 million to offset the loss of the school district property. Among other concerns, commissioners worried the costlier investment would exhaust the pool of money used to help Habitat for Humanity and provide down payment assistance for moderate-income families.

The idea was resurrected Tuesday morning with a $450,000 price tag, but was shot down by commissioners in on a 3-1 vote with only Pat Mulieri in support. Both Mariano and Commissioner Kathryn Starkey questioned the wisdom of putting new, affordable homes on the market while the county's housing stock remains filled with modest-priced homes and foreclosures.

That, however, did not end the discussion. After an afternoon lunch break, commissioners agreed to hear the matter a second time. Then, Smith inaccurately described the county as still committed to its $700,000 investment approved in January 2008 and suggested taxpayers' faced liability if the commission killed its participation entirely.

Wrong. As Times staff writer Lee Logan reported, the April 2011 commission vote that defeated the requested $1.3 million contribution also killed the earlier $700,000 commitment, according to the county's own online records.

The misleading information, whether intentional subterfuge or someone's inadvertent memory, undermines a program that should be considered on its merits. Certainly, there are positive attributes to receiving a better than 5-1 return on investment that will stimulate home-building jobs and provide a product reserved for often-maligned public employees who've faced five years of frozen wages and forced pension contributions to balance the state budget. Realtors say sale prices haven't climbed, but there is a shortage of existing homes in that price range available for sale.

But, commissioners also heard no data on a market analysis nor firm pricing for the housing. Their own county attorney said he hasn't been consulted in a timely manner and nobody could confirm Smith's supposed drop dead date requiring immediate commission approval.

At this point, commissioners should be wondering if they took a leap of faith based on bad faith. To provide transparency and to best serve the public's interests, Mariano and Starkey should demand the matter be reconsidered, with their own staff, not the guy who stands to make a profit, ready to answer their questions accurately.

Demand straight answers to housing venture questions 12/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 6:30pm]
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