CLEARWATER -- A court recently put the official stamp on what many people had come to believe -- Pinellas County government is not responsible for anything.
The court case involved the issue of the county issuing certificates of occupancy which, it turns out, mean nothing in terms of certification for anyone buying property.
But the pattern of "no responsibility" was already established in a recent case -- greatly overlooked -- that involved the county government's relationship with a private, 501(c)(3) corporation in the area of creating affordable housing.
As a result of the county's shennanigans -- all legal, of course (wink, wink) -- many entities are leery of getting involved with Pinellas County government on a volunteer basis or in any way that is helpful and charitable. The episode has undoubtedly had a chilling effect.
And no wonder. When the chips are down the county abandons the situation, claims no responsibility and goes dancing down the path.
The Pinellas Homestead Project, Inc. was a non-profit corporation whose stated mission was to put low income people into housing that was financed by federal funds.
The way it worked was that PHP would discover properties that needed rehabilitation and if the site could be spruced up a buyer would be put into the rehabbed house. PHP selected candidates for the housing and did all the paper work to facilitate the flow of funds through the county.
Eventually, through mismanagement or just plain lack of funds, PHP failed in its obligations and petitioned the county in a letter February 4, 2004 to the county's Community Development Department asked to end its relationship.
The letter specifically states money problems.
A woman named Vickie Justice, who was executive director of PHP at the time, in the meantime was quickly making arrangements for herself.
As PHP was sinking below the waves she had already lined herself up with Homes for Independence, Inc., the purpose of which is similar to that which PHP did.
Justice would not respond to questions for this article. Although she was caretaker of taxpayer funds in her role with PHP she was tough talking and rude in a brief telephone conversation in October.
Her actions, however, raise many questions. She was instrumental in dissolving PHP when it had outstanding obligations (including some to the Internal Revenue Service).
In an e-mail to a representative of her future employer on February 6, 2002, two days after Ray Neri, the PHP president, sent the letter to the county requesting an end to the relationship, she gloats how she incompletely wound up affairs at PHP but was protected "by a corporate umbrella."
This seemingly triumphant emergence from a disastrous situation created at PHP under her own management was greeted by Lori Kreisle of Homes for Independence with a return e-mail on the same date, February 6, 2004, with these words: "Great work, Vickie!"
In her e-mail to Kreisle, Justice had recounted how she had the "State and IRS under control" and that "I have talked to several people that dissolved corporations and they told me that once you have settled with the IRS in some kind of payment plan, the corporation protects you from all other creditors. . .and the creditors just have to write it off."
Among those other creditors were people who had been engaged by Justice to do surveys of properties that were under consideration for the program. If they determined that rehabilitation was feasible, PHP proceeded with fixing up the home and got a buyer.
Dave Ulm and Terry Cypher were at least two of these people left in the lurch by PHP's failure and Justice's walking away from all responsibility for the debts owed to them.
Ulm and Cypher pressed Justice for months to get money owned them but kept getting put off. They say she constantly promised to pay but kept delaying. In the end, Justice walked away from the obligation.
The two men sought relief through the county which washed its hands of the whole affair until Gay Lancaster, Chief Assistant County Administrator finally put in a bill to pay them and the County Council agreed on July 27.
When the whole story was investigated, Lancaster was very cooperative in supplying facts for this article, while denying that the county had any responsibility for the acts and misdeeds of Justice and PHP.
This in spite of an agreement between the county and PHP executed September 30, 2003, in which the county certifies that PHP "has been deemed qualified by the (Community Development) Department to process loans on behalf of the county. . ."
There is also language in the agreement that would lead one to believe that the PHP was an agent of the county, thereby making the county responsible for its acts. Lancaster and county legal counsel deny this.
One portion of the agreement says that the "County shall have the right to monitor and evaluate all activities carried out by the Agency (PHP) and by monitoring site visits by the department."
When a county employee, Anthony Jones, in the Community Development Department was questioned as to the aspect of this, he called the questioner "intimidating" and was truculent in giving any answers.
While the county right down the line denies any responsiblity for PHP's actions, Paragraph 3 of Section D of the agreement says "In the event of default, lack of compliance or failure to perform on the part of the Agency (PHP), County reserves the right to exercise corrective or remedial action. . ."
This was a right the county evidently and obviously refused to exercise.
So, as is so many other things, including the latest denial of responsibility when Certificates of Occupancy are issued (rendering them meaningless, obviously), the county denies any responsibility for its acts as a principal.
As a result, non-profit groups, volunteers and the general public tend to become leery of any involvement with the county.
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