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Flood grant mess swamps local residents

Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

More than two years after record rains sent storm and sewer water in to his finished basement, Park Ridge resident Charles Melidosian is working through another flood mess.

Construction crews took out the ceiling, drywall and floors last September as part of a repair and mold remediation project, paid for with a $10.3 million federal grant aimed at helping Chicago and suburban residents hit hardest by the 2008 floods.

Today, the basement is a shell, with construction halted and no immediate plans to resume work.

“Our house is cold,” Melidosian, a 44-year-old married father of three says, noting that the basement insulation was removed during demolition. “Our garage is filled with storage from the basement, so our cars are in our driveway. It’s reduced our house by a third.”

Getting to the heart of the problem is something of a bureaucratic nightmare.

Cook County is supposed to put the money up for work as it’s completed — then seek reimbursement from the state, which is administering the federal grant.

But the construction manager for Melidosian’s project and others across the northwest suburbs says the county stopped forking over the money to pay contractors last fall — under the administration of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

That’s according to Holly Fraccaro, executive director for North West Housing Partnership. The non-profit is among five regional agencies serving as construction managers for flood-related repairs.

It’s unclear why the money spigot was turned off. Stroger couldn‘t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Newly minted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle inherited the flood grant mess and, according to a spokeswoman, the county has released just under $10 million to the non-profit agencies.

Now the administration is sorting through a mess of paperwork to be sure there is truly some remaining funds that could be used to cover some projects that are in limbo.

“There may some remaining money and we have to decide how that will be spent going forward,” said Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves.

Preckwinkle’s staff, dealing with myriad problems related to the flood grant, had no information about Melidosian or any other resident’s project.

On Monday, Preckwinkle, had to meet with the Illinois Department of Human Services — the administrators of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services flood grant — about a freeze on reimbursements to the county. The freeze was the result of the Stroger administration submitting incomplete invoices.

Both Preckwinkle’s staff and DHS Secretary Michelle Saddler described the meeting as “productive” and said that the county is putting a team together to make sure reimbursement forms are submitted to the state by the end of April.

Otherwise the money would come out of county coffers — an added financial burden as Cook County works to close a $487 million gap in this year’s projected $3 billion-plus budget.

“The urgency is two-fold, the county needs to be reimbursed by the state and the people need to get their work finished,” Preckwinkle spokesperson Jessey Neves told the Sun-Times.

For Melidosian, among 900-plus Cook County residents who qualified for repairs and other aid under the grant, it’s a waiting game.

He fears a change order that bumped his $31,000 repair project to $52,000 — the result of mandates that electrical and other work be done to meet current building code requirements — was never properly submitted and that the work won’t be finishsed.

All of this has delayed the delivery of a new washer, dryer and freezer — also paid for with grant money — to replace the appliances that were submerged in raw sewage during the floods, he says.

“It will be nice to have it cleaned up and remediated, and I guess there’s a pain and penalty that comes with that,” he said.

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