Read & watch the March, 2009 story of firefighters taking storm door (mentioned in LeDuff’s article)
By Charlie LeDuff, The Detroit News (Pictures by Max Ortiz):
Why is Detroit broke? Why are its books an unmitigated disaster? Why do things never seem to change no matter who occupies City Hall? Maybe something as simple as a screen door might explain it.
Three firefighters were caught last year scavenging a screen door from an abandoned house. Why? Their firehouse didn’t have one and the flies were getting in.
The men were caught on video tape and disciplined. But the irony is that even in a city as broke as Detroit, $7 million in no-bid contracts were handed out over the past eight years to repair things like screen doors in its fire houses.
I took a trip to the Detroit Building Authority, which oversees city construction projects and dispenses city monies to pay for them. What I found among the records I pulled was shoddy bookkeeping, invoices to wrong addresses and, in many cases, missing paperwork. It would take a forensic accountant to sort it all out.
Then I went to the firehouses and listened to the complaints of the people who do the real work of putting out fires. They said the conditions in which they work only make a dangerous job more dangerous. I was shown mold, leaking pipes, exposed asbestos insulation, broken toilets, cracked floors and malfunctioning heating units. In one fire house the alarm bell is a jerry-rigged contraption of a door-hinge, a screw and an electrified pad.
A meeting with fire officials was arranged. Among them were Executive Commissioner James Mack Jr., Chief Charlene Graham, head of research and development and Second Deputy Commissioner Fred Wheeler, head of facilities and maintenance. All had high-ranking positions under disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and all were kept under new Mayor Dave Bing, who promised efficiency and transparency when he came to office.
“What specific questions do you have?” Mack asked.
Among the paperwork: Firefighters at Ladder 19 on Detroit’s east side can’t park their fire trucks in the main house because the floor is structurally unsound and condemned. But the city set aside about $400,000 to repair the floor back in 2003. Perhaps it was a clerical error and the floor was meant for Engine 19. The problem is there is no Engine 19, though that firehouse received $210,000 in renovations. It is unclear what ever became of the $400,000 or the $210,000 for Engine 19.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Graham, whose name appears on the paperwork.
Engine 22 was also awarded $400,000 for a new floor. That house — located on Michigan Avenue — was decommissioned about 30 years ago. It was last used as a restaurant: the Casa de España. Assuming a clerical error, then it is worth noting that Ladder 22 never got a new floor either, but the city did pay two contractors nearly $75,000 to study the feasibility of an addition at Ladder 22. Contractors found contaminated soil and left a heap of arsenic-laced dirt for firefighters to clean up. Furthermore, an annual building inspection of Ladder 22 has not been completed since 1999.
“I’ll look into it,” Mack promised. “Anything else?”
The Fire Training Academy — a dilapidated mess that still functions as the school for new firefighters — was awarded $1.5 million for a new training tower. A contract was drawn up but never signed. Fire Department officials said the tower project was abandoned and the money was reallocated to put a $900,000 roof on another building. However, there is no paper trail showing a stop work order on the training tower or what became of the other $600,000. City building inspectors checked the facility last year after a rash of complaints. That report has inexplicably been purged from the computer system.
“It’s air,” explained Wheeler. “That million was allocated (for the training tower) but it’s not there. In the case of canceled jobs, there is no paper trail. I guess you can infer a paper trail. That’s how many things go down here.”
A joint police precinct and firehouse on the city’s west side began as a $240,000 no-bid contract but ballooned into a $17 million job. The general contractor took 13 percent of the pie though the national average for such work is 5-5.7 percent, according to the Construction Management Association of America. The floors in that firehouse are cracked, the heating doesn’t work and water pipes to fill the fire engine were forgotten.
Here Mack stopped the meeting. “Make a list of questions, we’ll get back to you,” he said.
“Either someone let you in these firehouses, which is against department regulations, or you’ve got X-Ray vision,” Graham said to me on my way out the door.
In the end I never got to draft the questions, because the next morning I received an unsolicited and disappointing e-mail from City Hall. Karen Dumas, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bing, wrote that all questions should be directed to the Building Authority. So much for transparency.
So, the contracts were sent to an independent expert to get his appraisal. “Controls by the Authority seem to be lacking,” said H. Randolph Thomas, a professor of civil engineering at Pennsylvania State University and an expert on construction agreements. “Overall, the contract seems to have been written by amateurs.”
I went back to the Building Authority: “The feds have been through here on a couple of occasions but they never inquired about the fire department,” said Beth Duncombe, executive director of the Building Authority since Kilpatrick went to jail. “If you find something let me know, I will bring it to their attention myself.”