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City gets a second chance

Andy Ouriel • Oct 15, 2013 at 12:06 PM

Still embroiled in controversy, Sandusky’s federal housing program will start anew today.

City commissioners are expected to officially obtain a $250,000 Community Housing Improvement Program grant at 5 p.m. today in City Hall, 222 Meigs St.

The money aims to enhance living conditions for people residing in low- to medium-income households.    A new roof, a staircase, a bathroom for the handicapped or a new hot water tank are among some of the upgrades or repairs that individuals can do with the funding if they qualify.

But this money also represents a second chance for Sandusky. For the past three years, federal authorities banned Sandusky from applying for this grant or receiving program dollars.

Their reasoning?

In the mid-2000s, city officials approved contractors who either performed shoddy work or neglected to make necessary repairs at various homes.

The malfeasance negatively impacted about 60 homeowners, displacing many of these city residents.

As the scheme progressed, many residents repeatedly complained to city officials. Those complaints, however, went largely ignored.

Some others, meanwhile, never received home repairs as promised to them by city officials.

“I got no place to go,” said Roger Harpel, a Sandusky resident who claims to have never obtained grant money promised to him.

Despite city officials allegedly waiting to fix Harpel’s home, they didn’t delay condemning his living quarters in March 2012.

“The city has never given me a reason as to why they never rehabilitated my house, even with all the documentation that I have,” Harpel said. “My house was entitled to get it.”

Articles in the Register showing the plight some homeowners suffered finally spurred city officials to remedy some wrongdoings.

City officials and local prosecutors, however, never launched a local criminal investigation to pinpoint responsible parties involved in the housing scandal.

Instead, area officials referred the case to the Office of Inspector General, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal probe is in its fifth year, with seemingly no end date or conclusive results in sight.

Several calls the Register has placed to the lead investigator continue to be unreturned.

“As far as we know, they are doing work, but obviously there has not been resolution yet,” Sandusky law director Don Icsman said.

Sandusky officials included two safeguards to ensure a misuse of funds doesn’t occur again, including:

• Spending $25,000, or 10 percent from the $250,000 grant, on a state development company to oversee all program activities.

• Paying closer attention to who performs the work and how they do it.

“The city will need to provide proper oversight of the program,” commissioner Wes Poole said.

Poole placed some blame for the scandal on past commissioners. He said they ignored and failed to check up on the program, one of many precursors for all the malfeasance. “I’ll be paying attention to that particular program early on to make sure it’s running smoothly and that staff has put in the proper policies and procedures that the public can feel comfortable with to know it’s being well managed,” Poole said.

By the numbers: Money squandered in Sandusky’s CHIP scandal

•Unknown hundreds of thousands of dollars: Money paid to contractors and city workers who administered the city’s federal housing improvement assistance program. 

• Unknown hundreds of thousands of dollars: Amount the city was forced to pay to repay the grants after misspending the funding.

• $1.4 million: Cost to repair damages to properties of about 60 residents and their families. Litigation, expenses, attorney fees and auditing expenses not included. 

• Total losses: At least $1.4 million

Note: Information calculated through Register research. City and/or federal officials never provided/calculated total losses

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