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HUD Auditors Fault Memphis for Shoddy Home-Improvement Program

Residents of Memphis receiving government loans for housing repairs instead got stuck with termites, leaking roofs, and air conditioning systems that barely mitigated the 100-degree heat, federal auditors have found.

Auditors with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reviewed work by the city on 65 homes, finding problems with all but four of them, including holes in the walls stuffed with newspaper, leaking pipes, and a breaker box held in place with duct tape.

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In 14 homes, the installed HVAC units were the wrong size, leaving residents sweltering in 95-degree heat, just 5 degrees under the temperature outside. WREG News Channel 3 has more woeful tales, after speaking with residents in the affected neighborhoods last week.

Under the Housing and Rehabilitation Program, homeowners receive deferred-payment loans for work to make repairs and bring their houses up to code. The city hires contractors with federal tax dollars. Auditors looked at a sample of home repair contracts, or $1.6 million of the $3.9 million in projects undertaken in 2010 through 2012.

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They found $400,000 in projects that were not completed or had workmanship problems and estimated that if they had audited all the homes repaired during the three-year period, the figure would have been twice that much.

The city in its response said it would return $19,864 for work that was not completed and fix the faulty work worth $381,855 uncovered by auditors. The city said in its response that home inspectors had been disciplined and were no longer employed by the city and that some contractors had been dropped. The city said it had worked to fix the work on homes that failed to comply with building codes and had stopped taking new applications in May 2012 after complaints from homeowners emerged.

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The audit points to a lack of staff to oversee a program, noting that one person had been responsible for managing all the city’s housing construction programs, not just the home repair effort. The city failed to properly inspect the work under contract or fine contractors for missed deadlines, auditors found, suggesting the policy favored the interests of contractors over that of homeowners.

Accordingly, “a homeowner did not have access to the only bathroom with shower facilities for eight months. … Another homeowner had to endure sewage backing up in the tub for more than a month because the contractor took an extra 50 days to complete the contracted repairs.”

Homeowners had turned to a city government that has shown other recent evidence of mismanagement. Last year, the state comptroller held out the prospect of taking over the city’s finances if leaders there failed to pass a budget or show better stewardship of city funds. Wilson’s office found city funds that had been in the red going back two decades, according to WMC Channel 5.

Messages for city Housing Director Robert Lipscomb were not returned Monday. Tennessee Watchdog reports he is on vacation until next week.

Photos from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development audit of home repairs by city of Memphis.

Judge Declines to Add Library Cards to Voting ID List

Chastising the General Assembly’s cherry-picking of the kinds of photo IDs voters can use at the polls, a district judge ruled against an attempt to add library cards to the list in time for Thursday’s primaries.

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger called provisions of the state’s new voter ID law “ambiguous” Tuesday and called on the Legislature to revise what kinds of photo identification election officials will accept.

“There are parts of this act that make no sense to this court,” she said, adding it’s “nonsensical” that officials can legally accept a hunter’s license from Nebraska but not a library card from Memphis.

Trauger said she was “not convinced” by arguments from the city of Memphis to issue a preliminary injunction, which would have allowed voters there to use library cards as a type of ID.

At issue was whether the Memphis public library system was an entity of the state, whether the individual plaintiffs suffered irreparable harm and the effect a preliminary injunction would have on the election system if the initial ruling were overturned.

“We can’t turn back the clock,” said Janet M. Kleinfelter, Tennessee deputy attorney general. “In a close election, that can make a difference between who wins and who loses.”

Lawmakers in 2011 passed a law requiring voters to produce certain government-issued photo identification to prove their identity at the polls.

Attorney Douglas Johnston Jr., representing the city of Memphis, said his goal wasn’t to get the entire law thrown out but to give registered voters who lack a photo ID more tools to vote this week.

He said state officials should have embraced an opportunity to add library cards to the list of valid IDs, not issuing a “knee-jerk reaction without thinking through what’s attempting to be done here.”

“We are attempting to facilitate this statue, not stop it,” said Johnston. “All we were trying to do was to assist in a small way some of those citizens in Memphis.”

Photo IDs that will be accepted at the polls include a valid or expired driver’s license from any state, passport, federally-issued ID, state employee ID, military ID or gun permit card with a photo.

Trash Talk In Memphis

Trash workers for the city of Memphis plan to turn out Tuesday to protest a city proposal to privatize garbage collection.

Invoking the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, workers protesting earlier this month carried signs saying, “I am a man,” the same slogan their predecessors used to demand safe working conditions and an end to preferential treatment for white workers. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in Memphis to support the garbage workers when he was assassinated.

That’s the history that one worker interviewed by WMC TV Channel 5 argues would be lost. He says privatization would strip the city of local control and result in poorer service quality, but would also allow history to “fall by the wayside.”

“A lot of these guys did work during the ’68 period. A lot of them worked immediately after the ’68 period, so you have a lot of history associated with what we do,” worker Rod Lobbins tells the station.

But it’s hard to see how a cost-cutting measure would erase or undermine the important legacy Lobbins is talking about. It’s more likely simply to send workers, who reportedly earn as much as $27 an hour or the equivalent of a $56,000 annual salary, to the want ads.

And closing a $60 million budget gap shouldn’t be confused with racism, nor should backroom deals that stick it to city taxpayers, black and white alike.

Lately, the only person whose safety has been in question is Kemp Conrad, the city councilman who proposed privatizing trash service and said it would save $20 million a year. Conrad filed a police report after someone posted on Twitter an angry message referencing a convicted murderer: “let me get very low I wish James Hawkins get out of jail a pay (Conrad’s) kids a visit since Kemp don’t like black people!!”

Look for the rhetoric to stay at its fever pitch until the budget gets passed.

Fox13 News is teasing a story to air tonight about how the city sanitation department “is poorly managed, inefficiently run, and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” featuring a video of a citizen throwing trash into a city truck while a paid worker looks on.

Memphis Leaders Struck ’05 Deal To Protect Garbage Workers

The Commercial Appeal over the weekend highlighted a “gentlemen’s agreement” between Memphis leaders and the local sanitation workers’ union, in which the city agreed not to upgrade its fleet of garbage trucks to automated models that require fewer workers, officials told the newspaper. Officials say the decision has cost taxpayers up to $20 million per year since 2005.

“I don’t recall the circumstances or who met with who, or when, but I imagine it occurred when we were preparing to order trucks and it came up in normal discussions with the union,” a Public Works deputy director tells the paper.

The news comes as the city ponders privatizing trash collection and one year after the city imposed a $4.50 per month fee increase for garbage pickup.

The city has 534 employees in its Solid Waste Department. Private companies have told the city they could do the same job with less than half as many workers.

Memphis Officials Dislike Proposed Tax Increase, Cuts to Services

Memphis city officials are debating how to close a $60 million deficit in the next fiscal year, with the two options of service cuts and a tax increase on the table. But as the Commercial Appeal reports, politicians interested in self-preservation in an election year are loathe to do either.

A 58-cent property tax hike today would raise $63 million.

The 12-member council appears divided over Wharton’s proposed $676 million budget. Several council members have opposed workforce and holiday reductions but also oppose a tax increase.

Mayor A C Wharton’s administration has also said the city should go after property owners who owe the city back taxes.

In Memphis Merger, Here Comes the Judge

A judge has decided to personally mediate the talks between governments over the consolidation of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, talks that one party has described as futile.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays ordered the Shelby County Schools, Shelby County Commission, Memphis City Schools, Memphis City Council, city of Memphis and state Department of Education to appear today, indicating that he would handle the talks directly after a court-appointed mediator failed to make headway, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Steve Mulroy, a county commissioner and law professor at the University of Memphis, said judicial mediation enhances the “arm-twisting” ability of a judge. The judge can signal strongly that he’s inclined to rule a particular way in order to nudge one or both parties from their stalemated positions.

The parties disagree over the process for merging the two systems. The city, council and commission seek an expanded county school board now, while Shelby County Schools favors a plan passed by the legislature and keeping the Memphis City Schools board as-is until the consolidation process is completed.

County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who represents the commission in the mediation, said the talks so far have been “futile.”

“If this new mediation process does not work Mays’ first order of business would be to decide whether to let the commission move ahead with appointments or grant an injunction sought by five of the seven county school board members to keep the appointment process on hold,” the Memphis Daily News reports.

Memphis Budget Balancing Act

If you owe property taxes to the city of Memphis, the city’s coming for you.

The city may sell your land as a quick-fix to balance its budget this year, the Commercial Appeal reports today. That proposal and others, like reducing paid holidays for employees, are under consideration as the city works to reduce a projected deficit of as much as $70 million. As many as 200 city workers may be laid off, the city’s finance whizzes said.

Not likely to face the budget ax are two new six-figure city employees heading the Division of Community Enhancement, charged with reducing blight. The interim director and interim deputy director together make almost $225,000, the newspaper reports.