Housing Authority moves to plush HQ, pays director in excess of salary cap

10:40 PM, Jul 29, 2013   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida -- It's a tale of two buildings, paint peeling off the walls and ceiling, versus plush landscaping and fountains. In one, steamy apartments with no central air. In the other, plush conference rooms with fancy artwork. Cracks in the walls are obvious in one, and fancy lounge areas with expensive comfy chairs in another.

These are two properties with the same owner: the Tampa Housing Authority. They are less than five miles away from one another, but worlds apart.

And you paid for both of them.

A woman who lives in public housing in the North Boulevard Housing Project, who is afraid to give her real name but we will call her Lisa, said, "The plugs don't work, the refrigerators don't work, the paint in here gets my daughter sick."

Lisa is upset that the Tampa Housing Authority has moved its headquarters into a new building while her family's home lies in disrepair.

Another critic, Tim, who has lived in public housing, said, "Much more could be done for the residents than what's being done for that new Taj Mahal."

The "Taj Mahal" is a former office building on Cypress Boulevard in the Westshore area. The Housing Authority bought the building in 2010 for $ 4.2 million, but the CEO said they would still need even more money for renovations.

According to Tampa Housing Authority Chief Financial Officer Andy Libby, "I think the initial estimates before we got into the building were close to a million dollars."

But  Libby admits it didn't exactly work out that way.

We said to Libby, "If you add in all the amenities that had to, or didn't have to, be put in, we are well over $2.5 million approaching $3 million. Correct?"

According to Libby, that is true. "If you add in all those soft costs," he said.

But those soft costs add up. The whole building will cost more than $7 million hard dollars, and those are your tax dollars.

That doesn't sit well with people in public housing. Tim said, "I think it is a waste of money to purchase a brand new building and upgrade that building when so much more could have been done with the money here in public housing."

But Libby said residents like Lisa and her North Boulevard neighbors should be patient, because the Housing Authority plans to fix up her community in a few years.

Libby told us, "We are working as hard as we can to do that."

However when asked about a specific date for the renovations, he paused for more than six seconds and said, "We would hope in the next couple of years we could do that."

"Funding is a challenge," he added.

But funding is less of a challenge for the man in charge of the Tampa Housing Authority. CEO Jerome Ryans earns $214,000 a year, even though federal regulations say a Housing Authority director cannot be paid more than $155,000 in federal funds. And while all of Ryans' salary starts out as federal HUD dollars, the Housing Authority has found an almost magical way to get around the $155,000 limit.

Here's how it works:

-- Each month, another agency in the Housing Authority gets thousands of dollars from HUD.

-- The Housing Authority then waves a magic wand over the money and says, "Presto chango, this is no longer federal money,"and pays Ryans an extra $59,000.

When we confronted Ryans about it, he said, "I don't apologize about my salary to anybody."

Ryans, who refused our request to sit down and talk, told us in the HUD parking garage where we confronted him, "And I'm through with it."

When we tried to ask about the $155,000 cap, the head of security said, "We are going to ask you leave. This is a private area."

We reminded him it was actually public area paid for by taxpayers. We waited and waited, but Ryans ran back inside rather than answer questions about his headquarters building or his salary.

But Lisa and those living in public housing want to know why the Housing Authority is focusing on new plush headquarters while they live in run-down old buildings.

Lisa told us, "I want better, but you know times are hard. We are struggling. Do something to these apartments, spend the millions on these apartments, so we can have something better."

The Housing Authority said the money for the new building comes from a different account than the money for the public housing units, but critics say it's hard to justify the fancy digs when the Authority is crying poor about improving conditions for those who live in the public housing.

As far as Ryans' salary, according to materials the Tampa Housing Authority provided us, getting around the $155,000 salary cap is not their idea alone. They say HUD even has guidelines for agencies on how to de-federalize money in order to pay salaries beyond the cap.

Follow 10 News Reporter Mike Deeson on twitter @MikeDeeson

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