What’s Going on at the Lakeland Housing Authority?

There’s a public meeting tomorrow night that won’t generate a lot of interest. It’ll start with an invocation that won’t draw the ire of Atheists of Florida. It’ll discuss matters of finance that won’t attract a representative of any tax watch group. The room won’t be standing room only as the public clamors to be heard. There’s even a small chance our local mass media won’t attend.

The board for the Lakeland Housing Authority meets Monday night at 6 pm. Their agenda includes 11 resolutions; four of which are to approve contracts hiring law firms. One is to approve a new salary schedule.

The salary of LHA executive director Herb Hernandez has been in the public eye for some time. Hernandez was hired in July 1995 at $64,000 for his salary and car allowance. He received pay raises all but three years thereafter. Last year his salary and car allowance was raised to $200,070. That’s roughly a 212% increase over the 15 year period.

Last year, the Ledger compared Hernanzez’s salary to the salary of the City of Lakeland’s highest paid employee, City Manager Doug Thomas. The article noted Thomas oversees 2007 employees and a budget of $500 million. Hernandez has 102 employees and a budget of $28 million. Thomas’ salary for the year was $185,994 with $4800 a year for his car allowance.

Hernandez, housing authority director for nearly 15 years, earns more than his peers in the cities of Daytona Beach, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and Brevard, Broward and Pinellas counties, according to a salary study conducted by LHA staff and a consultant. — Eric Pera, The Ledger May 15, 2010

Tomorrow’s agenda implies the LHA board will discuss the salary of the executive director. LHA has recently conducted a salary survey of executive directors of Florida housing authorities. A memo mentioned that some execs received perks which exceed those given to Hernandez. Those include:

• A work week of 37.5 hours and compensatory time for hours exceeding those. Hernandez is salaried. (The Broward County exec who receives such a benefit manages four times as many Section 8 housing units.)
• 13% retirement contribution while Hernandez receives 6% (The same Broward County exec also waived health insurance coverage for a $46.93 a week cash payment.)
• 48 paid days off a year. Hernandez receives 40. (The Deerfield Beach exec who receives this benefit gets $0.44 a mile car allowance.)
• Special retirement programs. Hernandez is under a 401. (Frankly, the execs in the report all had differing retirement plans which could be called “special.”)
• Paid long term disability. Hernandez has a standard policy. (Only the City of Fort Myers exec had an 100% paid premium.)
• 100% paid family health coverage. The report states Hernandez gets a $435 stipend. (The Deerfield Beach exec who receives this benefit gets a $112,080 annual salary.)

You get the idea. While salary is easy to compare, benefit comparisons can be cherry-picked.

Finally, the agenda makes no mention of addressing Public Housing Assessment System scores. A recent report dunned LHA as “troubled” for the fiscal year ending in 2009. The Housing and Urban Development branch of the government scores public housing authorities on a variety of areas including financial, management, physical and resident. HUD gives an organization one or two years to improve a deficient score. If the authority doesn’t improve a score after that time, HUD will “take appropriate remedial action.”

Some questions for tomorrow’s meeting if you attend:

• LHA officials have written that their lead attorney billed over $195,00 last year, but averaged $75,000 per year for 2007 to 2009. The new contract with the same law firm states a not to exceed value of $140,000 per year. Other firms are expected not to exceed $42,500 per year. The question is: does LHA expect $180,000+ per year in legal bills and why?

• An LHA report stated that “several housing authorities pay their Executive Directors from several sources.” The report states that “Other sources in HA’s situation could be Lakeland Polk Housing Corporation, West Lake Management and Polk County Housing Developers. In other words, portions of the LHA Executive Director’s salary could be paid from several sources, thereby lowering the amount paid directly by LHA.” The question is: has LHA discussed such a plan with those organizations? If so, what was their reaction?

• The salary and compensation questions are numerous: Why has so much work gone into comparing the salary of the LHA Executive Director with other similar directors? Were similar studies made for other employee positions? Has Hernandez made overtures for better benefits or he would seek employment elsewhere? Have any board members expressed an interest in making the LHA executive the best compensated in the state? Did the comparison accurately state the number of units the LHA manages?

• Why did LHA receive such a low PHSA score for 2009? Were LHA board members aware of the low score before February 2011? Does the LHA Executive Director have an idea of what could have caused the low score? Was the problem fixed for the 2010 fiscal year? If not, what steps is LHA taking to improve the score?

Now, if you’d like to speak at tomorrow’s meeting you better get on the stick. LHA requires that “Speakers must register prior to the Public Forum by completing this form, available at the entrance of the meeting room. Forms must be filled out completely and turned in to the Board’s designee prior to
the commencement of the Public Forum for any meeting.” There are a long list of rules when speaking to the board. You should not expect an immediate answer to any of your questions:

Appropriate matters brought during Public Forum shall be addressed by the Executive Director in writing in the next regular Board meeting package under the “Response to Public Forum” section, unless otherwise requested or directed by the Chairperson, or by a majority vote of the present quorum of the Board.

One could only hope respectful questions from the media after the meeting would generate a more timely response.

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