Housing program short of money, residents short of time

SANDUSKY Lillian Thomas needs more than $50,000 in repairs to her home, which the city is requi
May 24, 2010



Lillian Thomas needs more than $50,000 in repairs to her home, which the city is required to fix.

She has no ventilation. A deadly toxin hovers above her son's bedroom. City contractors stripped her siding in June and still haven't replaced it.

The problem? The city's Housing Rehabilitation Program has run out of money -- again.

"It's just not right," Thomas said. "How can they start something and not complete it? My house -- my son -- are in danger."

Thomas is one of 64 homeowners who have been devastated by the fallout from the Community Housing Improvement Program scandal.

City officials say that between 2004 and 2006, Mark Warren, the man in charge of Sandusky's CHIP program, robbed the city of hundreds of thousands of dollars -- maybe more.

During that period, Warren oversaw the poor rehabilitation of nearly 50 houses. With many others, he did no repairs or fixed things that didn't need fixing.

The calamity has left Sandusky with possibly $1 million in repairs to do itself, and city officials are scrambling to find the money. Although they've completed $455,000 in improvements already, many of the homes still don't have heat, lack hot water or suffer from other safety issues.

City commissioner Bob Warner said those people cannot wait for repairs any longer.

"We can't leave our citizens out there to freeze to death," Warner said. "If we have to borrow the money, if we have to beg for it -- saying we don't have the money and can't do (anything) ... that's just not in the cards."

In a tightening economy, however, the reality is the city just doesn't have the money.

Earlier this month, the city commission rejected a $200,000 request for the program, saying the general fund didn't have the wiggle room to accommodate such a large request.

According to projections released earlier this week, the city will lose $329,000 this year, even without these latest repairs.

Nonetheless, city manager Matt Kline and finance director Ed Widman have vowed to find the funds for emergency repairs such as heat and hot water.

Beginning last week, the city dispatched George Poulos, Sandusky's chief building official, to visit the houses and determine who needs immediate fixes and how much those will cost.

Poulos promised to give Kline an estimate of the emergency damages by the end of November.

"Life safety and the security of the houses -- those are the priorities right now," Poulos said.

According to Widman, the city is exploring "several options" for funding, but declined to specify what those options are.

Some city officials said they hoped to get some money from the city's insurance carrier because of a theft claim against Warren, which could then be used for the program.

But insurance claims can take months to be validated, and the weather on Tuesday and Wednesday indicated winter is rapidly approaching.

Still, officials were confident they would find a solution.

"We did the right thing in the Cold Creek case with the residents' taxes, and we'll do the right thing here," city commissioner Dave Waddington said.

Meanwhile, Lillian Thomas and other homeowners wait.

After visiting four homes, Poulous called Thomas' house a "high priority," because a lack of siding can lead to structural damage and become a safety issue, he said.

Thomas remains skeptical.

"I was made a promise in 2005, and they still haven't delivered on that promise," she said. "I understand other people's situations, but I need them to deliver now."