SEBRING Sixteen people were given free second mortgages or home repairs under the terms of programs administrated by the Highlands County Housing Department.
“Those terms were very, very lenient,” County Commissioner Don Elwell said Wednesday. “In some cases, all they had to do was stay in the house for three years. They never had to pay (the money) back.”
Nine of the loans were from $34,000 to $49,000. Although some of the homes are well maintained today, others are now dilapidated and are in sketchy neighborhoods.
Two of the loans, for $48,993 and $48,796, qualified for the HOME Again program. “The purpose… is to rehabilitate the applicant’s homes to a livable condition with most of the repairs … directed toward improving health and safety conditions in the aftermath of the Hurricanes of 2004,” according to a Feb. 27, 2006 letter from Penny Phillippi, then Highlands County’s housing coordinator.
Gloria Rybinski, Highlands County’s public information officer, confirmed that none of the 16 was required to repay their loans. The exception was Raymond Mulero of Avon Park, who received a foreclosure intervention loan of $1,847 in April 2009 and repaid the full balance.
“The federal government has already cut back on allocations,” Elwell said. “And they needed to be changed dramatically.
“The county has no recourse at this time regarding those loans,” Elwell said. “The best we can do is make certain that programs like this are managed responsibly and that nothing quite like what happened in 2006 ever happens again.”
“Golly, what a giveaway that was, what a scam,” said Elwell. He and other county commissioners have virtually shut down what was a seven-person department. Only one employee remains.
The commissioners were required by contract to declare the mortgages “satisfied,” County Administrator June Fisher told the board last week. “They have met their terms of the agreement and now must be satisfied.”
“Do we have any choice?” Commissioner Jim Brooks asked.
“No,” Chairman Jack Richie answered quickly.
Fisher shook her head in agreement and then shrugged her shoulders.
“All that was federal money,” said County Attorney Ross Macbeth, “and you wonder why the feds can’t balance their budget.”
“Well,” Elwell said, “They just need to print more.”
“We just need to have motion,” the chairman suggested. “Get rid of it.”
Brooks made the motion; seconded by Ron Handley.