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Flood victims left high and dry by Cook County repair program
Repairs to be paid by $10 million grant go unfinished

Thursday, December 30, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Robert McCoppin

When workers came to repair his flood-damaged house, Mike Elliott put his things in storage and moved out temporarily. Three months later, the workers are gone, the job unfinished, and Elliott is still renting a room from his next-door neighbor, wondering when he can move back home.

His two-story frame house in Des Plaines needs new floors, a bathroom, a kitchen and plumbing. The half-fixed home is the result of a bureaucratic breakdown in the Cook Countyprogram meant to fix the damage.

Elliott is among hundreds of homeowners flooded in 2008 — the wettest year on record in Chicago — who were supposed to be helped by a $10 million federal grant administered by Cook County. But there's no more money available, and many homeowners are stuck with half-finished repair projects, with no more aid in sight.

Amid investigations of the county's management of the program, the Illinois Department of Human Services disclosed Wednesday that it has suspended payments to contractors until it can verify they are proper. "We are going through the paperwork with a fine-tooth comb to make sure all monies were accounted for," spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said.

Stuck in the middle between frozen payments and unpaid contractors, homeowners are potentially liable for the unpaid work.

"Which was worse?" Elliott asked. "The disaster of the flood of 2008, or the disaster of the relief program?"

The trouble started in September and October of 2008, when floods damaged thousands of homes in Cook and other counties. The region was declared a federal disaster area.

Although some homeowners received disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agencyshortly after the flooding, it wasn't until this year that the Cook County Disaster Grant program made funding available for home repairs. Contractors were told to quickly make cost estimates of repairs on hundreds of homes, with the jobs going to the lowest bidders.

But after contractors started tearing out flood-damaged walls and floors, they often discovered more extensive damage. Municipal inspectors also often insisted on code upgrades as part of the work, such as basement escape windows, which significantly increased costs of the jobs.

In some cases, contractors got paid for initial demolition work but nothing more. This fall, the program stopped taking applications. Some contractors were still owed money, and others stopped with repairs half-finished.

Jeffrey Tondola, a Des Plaines contractor, called the program "a giant debacle."

Tondola said he has done $23,000 worth of work on 19 homes for which he has not been paid. He said some other contractors might consider putting liens on homes if they don't get paid.

He got paid roughly $15,000 for the work on Elliott's home, but estimates it needs another $22,000 in repairs.

"We're having to leave people's home undone, which isn't good for anybody," he said.

One of his clients, Carol Broxton, of Bellwood, had at least 4 feet of water in her basement in 2008 and afterward had mold growing even higher on her walls. Tondola cut out the drywall and carpeting, replaced support joists and removed the bathroom in the basement. But when funding ran out, he had to stop there. Broxton is left with no inside walls, insulation, flooring or bathroom downstairs.

With four children at home, Broxton's college-age daughter has to share a bedroom with Broxton's 9-year-old son while they wait for repairs to finish. Broxton, a 50-year-old forklift driver, doesn't have money to finish the job all at once.

"It's really frustrating," she said.

The program offered up to $10 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to be administered through the state and the county. Adding another layer of bureaucracy, the county contracted with private nonprofit agencies to oversee inspections and contractors.

Questions arose about the project this summer after revelations that $79,000 of the grant money went to a promotional picnic at Brookfield Zoo. Carla Oglesby, a former high-level aide to then-County Board President Todd Stroger, was charged criminally amid allegations her company was paid inappropriately for publicity work on the program. Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard is also investigating.

Ultimately, out of more than 2,300 homeowners from 85 suburbs who applied for assistance, 906 were deemed qualified to receive a total of $7 million, county spokeswoman Jessey Neves said.

But only $1.7 million of that has been paid out, primarily because the previous administration failed to provide adequate paperwork to justify the payments, Neves said.

The administration of new County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, which took over Dec. 6, is trying to gather documentation for the state to make payments for hundreds of more homes, but it will only be for repairs already identified, not for new work.

"It didn't have the oversight it should have had," Neves said. "We understand the gravity of the situation, and we're moving forward as fast as we can."

The previous county administration just submitted paperwork in November, state spokeswoman Sainvilus said, after months of requests. Though the state frequently administers grants to disaster areas, she said, "we don't have this problem with any of the other counties."

Ursula Zielonka, a homeowner in Des Plaines, said she is still waiting for the county to pay for some $30,000 in estimated repairs.

"I'm really disappointed," she said. "If I knew it would end up like this, I wouldn't even have gone for it."

Elliott, the Des Plaines man who's renting a room at his neighbor's house, is fed up and wants to organize affected homeowners to demand more funding.

His message for the county and state is simple: "Do what you said you were going to do."

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