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Documents reveal recipients of HUD funds

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Hundreds of pages of invoices, checks and employee records obtained by The Albany Herald point to potentially questionable business practices by a local non-profit involved in a failed development.

The Albany City Commission will decide Tuesday whether to accept a settlement for Cutliff Grove Family Resource Center (FRC) that would transfer ownership of a parcel of land at 828 W. Broad Ave. where the Grovetown Gardens apartments were intended to be built in exchange for first refusal rights on the property should the city sell it.

That vote comes after a series of events that ultimately led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare the project ineligible, the city to strip FRC's status as a Community Housing Development Organization and HUD to demand the city return $374,000 in HOME funds spent on the project.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of documents from the city's Department of Community and Economic Development and the Dougherty County Clerk of Court's office, it appears that the Grovetown project was fraught with irregularities which appear to have been compounded by poor oversight by city officials.

One of the irregularities surrounds the purchase of the property itself.

Deeds show that in May 2005, Greater Cutliff Grove Baptist Church -- the parent agency of FRC -- bought the property at 828 W. Broad Ave. for $75,000 from Roland Wetherbee.

Nine months later, a document dated Feb. 23, 2006, subsequently shows that the church sold the property to its development arm -- FRC -- for $96,804.62.

After having received authorization from the City Commission to receive a reimbursement for up to $97,136 for land acquisition during a December 20, 2005 meeting, FRC was paid $96,804.62 on March 31, 2006.

Comparison of sale and purchase prices shows that the property increased in value 29 percent between the time the church bought the property in May 2005 and when FRC was reimbursed in March 2006.

The difference, $21,804, was not located in the documents related to the Grovetown project provided to the Herald.

Tax records show that 2010 preliminary value information has the 1.07 acre-tract valued at $74,700 -- $300 below what the church bought if for in 2005.

The documents do show, however, how $364,697.94 in HOME funds given to FRC were directed. The remaining $10,017 that was originally reported by city officials as also having to be repaid to HUD, was the result of a staff error, a note says, and has been reimbursed to the city by HUD.

The biggest recipient of the funds was architect John Rivers whose company, JIRA, received roughly $162,131.34 for expenses such as an environmental study, architectural and engineering design, construction manager's fees, market analysis' and consulting.

Rivers was the architect who has business connections with Romeo Comeau, owner of the dilapidated Heritage House hotel, and who unsuccessfully tried to obtain $16 million in stimulus funds to undertake an ambitious project to turn the crumbling hotel into low-cost apartments.

In a deposition dated July 13, obtained by The Herald, Rivers reportedly discusses how churches can increase their cash-flow by creating community development non-profits through referencing how he and a previous partner worked with churches to build religious-related architecture.

"Of course, churches typically have the challenge of cash flow. And we saw an opportunity that would be natural for churches to engage in nonprofit real-estate development and thereby create cash flow, additional, you know, cash flow for the church," he states.

"So we got into designing religious-related architecture but also providing a service to help them create (sic) non-profit development entity in a community development type entity," he says.

Individually, FRC Director Juanita Nixon received the most HOME funds through her salary, which was paid as "developers' fees" monthly.

According to the documents, Nixon received more than $51,500 for work done between Aug. 29, 2005 and April 30, 2008.

During that time, Nixon's hourly pay, which started off at $8 per hour on Aug. 29, 2005, more than doubled by the end of April 2008 to $16.93 per hour.

The documents show that Nixon received a lump-sum payment of $21,666.64 Nov. 30, 2007. That amount, more than $17,000 in back pay, included pay for work done between April 1, 2007 and November 31, 2007. She received an additional $6,180 reportedly because during that seven-month period, Nixon's pay was calculated based on net pay after taxes rather than gross pay.

Nixon appears to be FRC's only full-time employee. A review of her timesheets shows that she worked 300 additional hours without pay during an eight-month period spanning January to August 2006.

Timesheets show that she reported working many of those days without any breaks.

The timesheets abruptly stop being included after August 2006. While the documents suggest that she didn't work between September 2006 and May 31, 2007, she reportedly resumed work April 1 and continued to work through April 30, 2008. During that period the documents show that her salary was paid through a direct request to the DCED.

Each one of the requests for payment were signed off on by either Jennifer Clark, the head of the DCED at the time; Johny Hamilton, the interim head when Clark left; or another DCED administrator.