City winterizing program put on hold

October 07, 1994|By Eric Siegel and JoAnna Daemmrich | Eric Siegel and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

A $3.2 million Baltimore program to winterize homes for the poor has been suspended, and all nine of its employees have been dismissed, after independent inspectors found that energy-saving improvements were poorly done or never completed.

Also, payment of about $250,000 in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. funds funneled through the state is being withheld until the deficiencies are corrected.

The work was done by contractors and employees of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. The problems in the city's winterization program are the most recent example of Housing Authority contractors having been faulted for shoddy or incomplete work.

Under pressure from BGE and the state, the city has hired three private companies at a cost of about $10,000 to inspect work done on 382 units over the past year, officials said.

Until those inspections are completed, no new weatherization work will be done, said Zack Germroth, a Housing Authority spokesman.

"The program is on hold," Mr. Germroth said last night.

Depending on the results of those inspections, Mr. Germroth added, additional action could be taken against the nine employees involved.

"If firings are required, they will take place," he said.

Revelations of difficulties in the winterization program are among a series of miscues by the city's housing agency.

Last week, two contractors involved in a $25 million no-bid repair program were accused by federal prosecutors of making illegal payments to Housing Authority employees. Earlier, a manager of the program and an authority engineer pleaded guilty to accepting money and favors from contractors, and are cooperating in a probe.

Also, a federal audit released last month found deficiencies in nearly every area of the authority's operation and directed the authority to repay the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hundreds of thousands of dollars in misspent funds.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke acknowledged at his weekly news briefing yesterday that the agency was struggling to overcome problems, but said executive director and city housing commissioner Daniel P. Henson III was working to make "corrections."

Mr. Schmoke said city officials have been aware of problems with shoddy work in the winterization program for some time. "The commissioner identified that problem a couple of months ago, really, and has taken some very forceful steps to clean up the weatherization program, including dismissing some people," the mayor said.

The program, targeted for low-income homeowners and renters, has a $3.2 million budget from July 1, 1993, through Dec. 30. The money, given to the city through Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development, is roughly made up equally of money from the U.S. Department of Energy and BGE. The BGE funds are the result of a recent mandate from the state's Public Service Commission requiring the utility company to contribute funds for energy conservation.

Problems with the city's handling of the program first surfaced in independent inspections conducted last spring, officials said.

Of 34 units visited by state inspectors, 65 percent failed their tests, officials said. An additional 40 units inspected by BGE found a similar rate of problems, they said.

"Some things that should have been there were missing altogether. Some things were done poorly," said Jacqueline H. Rogers, Maryland's housing secretary.

Based on those inspections, Ms. Rogers met with Mr. Henson and BGE officials in early summer and said the Housing Authority had to correct the deficiencies and hire private inspectors to certify that the work was completed.

"We told Dan Henson he wouldn't be compensated for work he was billing us for," she said.

BGE is withholding about $250,000 in payments until they receive evidence that the work is done right, state and city officials said.

Robert C. Adams, director of the Maryland Office of Weatherization, said that the city has only completed a little over half of the 1,500 units it was expected to complete under the 18-month contract. Only about a third of the money budgeted for the program has been paid to the city, all of it in federal funds, he said.

Mr. Germroth, the Housing Authority's spokesman, described most of the problems as minor.

Mr. Germroth said some of the work was done by private !B contractors, but he could not say yesterday how much work was done or who the contractors were. He also could not say when the nine Housing Authority employees involved in the program were dismissed, but said it was "in the last month or so."

Of them, he said, three have since been rehired by the authority in other positions; two are contract workers whose agreements were not renewed; and four remain laid off.

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