September 13, 2004: George Bush and John Kerry have been spending a lot of time in Ohio. Hoping to win votes from what some politicians and pundits
call "average Americans". But despite many an invitation, neither
candidate has dropped in on George Beam. George Beam lives in
Mentor, Ohio. Mentor, pop roughly 50,000, is 30 minutes east of
Cleveland. It's the largest city in Lake County, which contains
a sizable stretch of Lake Erie shoreline and a lot of park land.
George hunts. Turkeys are a particular favorite. He's generally
appreciative of animals in the way good hunters can be and sends
friends pictures and stories of ones that strike his fancy. An
albino bear cub was a recent example-- as was a buck with immense
antlers. George has lived in his modest home in Mentor for a
number of years and remembers when the area was far more rural.
By 1999 George Beam's home needed repairs. Nearby road work plus
development of adjoining properties had caused the level of
water runoff around his home to change. His basement was flooding
repeatedly. George is not a rich man, so when he heard the city
of Mentor could provide home rehab assistance through a program
of the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) he
was interested. HUD's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)
program provides funds to municipalities in a lump sum-- to be
divided in a number of proscribed ways with a good degree of
local control. One application is home rehab assistance for low
or moderate income home owners. Low income people receive full
rehab funding, moderate income people receive partial assistance.
When George Beam sought CDBG assistance with his home rehab it
took some time for him to get the application and the funding.
George, plus other applicants, found there was some confusion
about how Mentor was administering the program. But eventually,
Mentor provided George Beam with a list of approved contractors
and told him to select at least 3 that would competitive bid for
the job. George picked eight. Mentor selected the lowest bidder.
A contractor who'd done prior work on a city fire house. By the
Summer of 2000 the rehab of George's home was off and running.
Almost immediately Mentor's approved contractor became a case of
the cure being worse than the sickness. Perhaps the low bid
played a part: when George questioned shoddy work and outright
damage, the contractor said he just couldn't hire good help.
George took his complaints about the contractor to the Better
Business Bureau and discovered he wasn't alone in his
dissatisfaction. He also discovered the BBB is no ball of fire.
George also complained to Mentor city officials. A city building
inspector came to check George's house. According to George the
inspector looked at the work and said "Hell, in two years you'll
be back where you started." He called the job unacceptable. Later
on down the line the inspector didn't recall making the statements and Mentor's chief building official declared that the
most serious damage (a cracked basement wall) didn't need to be
replaced. Reportedly, George Beam's political ward representative
shrugged off complaints saying "Why should you care, it's the
fed's money not yours". Apparently forgetting that George lived
in a house-- not in a heap of taxpayer dollars.
In January 2001, George went to HUD's regional offices in
Cleveland and the Ohio state capital of Columbus. HUD in Columbus
agreed to send out an inspector. Eight months later, after many
phone calls from George, the inspector arrived. Presumably after
stopping for a lengthy lunch break. By August 8th, when the HUD
inspector showed up, George and his wife had been living for
months amidst the debris and damage of a rehab hanging in limbo.
Their yard was filled with construction material and sported an
open trench. The steps into the house were missing. Due to cracks
and resulting shifts, the wind whistled through rooms. In emails
during the cold months, George made black jokes about life in
his drafty, tarp draped "medieval castle". And took to using
quotes when speaking of his "home".
By October of 2001, an agreement on a resolution of George's
problems had been hammered out between officials at the Columbus
HUD office, the City of Mentor and George Beam's attorney. His
attorney in this instance was Jamie Callender, the Republican
state representative from George's district and Lake County's
Republican Party Executive. George had decided to hire an
attorney some months prior to this occasion and had taken out
a home equity loan to cover legal costs. Jamie Callender was
recommended by a city council member George respects. George
hoped to obtain restitution for the secondary damages to his home
and for injuries incurred when clambering over debris in his
yard and into his stepless door. George was not present when
the agreement on a resolution was made between the Columbus HUD
officials, the City of Mentor and his attorney, nor was he given
an account of the agreement in writing. None the less, he found
the terms acceptable.
When problems first arose with the work done by Mentor's approved
contractor, George had called in several local professionals for
an assessment of the damage. One was a civil engineer. The agreed
upon resolution called for the same engineer to have access to
the areas that needed repair, and to oversee and inspect all
work that was done. CDBG funds would cover the engineer's fees.
The work was to be completed before winter. An important
consideration given upper Ohio's notoriously frigid lake effect.
By early December no work had been done. HUD temporarily
suspended the city of Mentor's CDBG housing rehab funds, citing
"a lack of demonstrated progress and attentiveness" to resolving
George Beam's problems. Over the next few months the situation
became even more tangled. In March of 2002, the engineer who was
supposed to salvage the situation, pulled out. Claiming George
Beam had hired another engineer. Which apparently would have been
a HUD no-no. George Beam denied having done so and provided HUD
with contact info for the engineer he allegedly hired, asking
the agency to check out the truth of the claim for themselves.
He also instructed his attorney, Jamie Callender, to apprise the
city of Mentor likewise. For months, legal correspondence about
whether George Beam did or did not hire another engineer flowed
between Callender and the city of Mentor. In June of 2002, HUD
lifted the suspension of Mentor's CDBG funds, citing satisfactory
program improvements. Which seems odd considering that the
initial suspension was linked directly to the condition of George
Beam's home and George was still living amidst the debris of the
unfinished, CDBG funded rehab.
In December of 2002, George Beam filed suit against the City
of Mentor and its approved contractor. A few months later, in
February of 2003, HUD was back on the scene, threatening Mentor
with sanctions if it didn't either fix George Beam's house or
refund the roughly $20,000 in grant money HUD had paid for the
failed rehab. To which Mentor's city manager replied: "The city's
law director has directed that no action whatsoever be taken on
the matter of Mr. Beam until resolution of his lawsuit." Mentor
then refunded the Beam related, CDBG money to HUD. Of that
funding, roughly half had gone to Mentor's original, approved
contractor and close to half to the engineer who quit. Smaller
sums had been paid to the approved contractor's attorney and to
the city of Mentor's law director. After receiving its refund,
HUD bowed out. George Beam was on his own. Except of course,
for his attorney.
End Part One: On The Matter Of Mister Beam
In Part Two: George Beam goes to court. Bills blossom. Caps
are set. His attorney keeps busy. Mentor claims "governmental
immunity". George Beam contacts more public officials. George
Bush, John Kerry and Bill Clinton reply. But never make it to
dinner. Plus: How do claims of local "governmental immunity"
effect lawsuits involving federally funded rehabs? Also: Ohio
HUD and its other CDBG home rehab problems. Think Cleveland...
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Picture of Mister Beam's "home" circa 2002
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