A city program meant to improve neighborhoods may be endangering children.
Racine's Neighborhood Stabilization Program is under investigation by the State Department of Health Services after a city employee flagged dozens of potential lead paint violations on city-owned homes.
The NSP, funded by $3.4 million in federal stimulus, is designed to renovate and sell rundown homes in foreclosure. The city bought 23 homes with federal money over the summer and is renovating 17 homes. Work is underway to renovate the homes, but contractors may be violating several regulations in the process, according to Housing Technician Bill Bielefeldt and local contractors.
Toxic lead paint chips were found on sidewalks and in yards next door to city-owned homes. Lead paint can lead to brain damage in children. There are stringent city and state guidelines to safely remove and dispose of lead paint from homes. The city isn't following its own rules, said Bielefeldt, who has turned whistleblower last week in hopes that the city will enforce its lead-safety guidelines.
"Those rules are in place for the children," Bielefeldt said. "They have enough disadvantages. They don't need an unhealthy environment."
Bielefeldt stepped forward after being suspended without pay by City Development Director Brian O'Connell. Bielefeldt, who has worked for the city for 12 years, said city officials suspended him for "gross negligence" on Sept. 10 for his work on the NSP. He said the real problem is an ongoing personality conflict with his bosses, who have made repeated attempts to undermine him and his work, and a department that's overworked with too many programs going on at once.
After being suspended, Bielefeldt turned whistleblower. He sent 76 photos to the Department of Health Services on Sept. 16 documenting potential lead paint violations. They include photos of lead paint chips scattered around the exterior of a city-owned home at 1124 Irving Place. Lead paint chips were also found outside of 1841 Villa St., 1706 Maple St., 1537 Thurston Ave., and 1435 Blaine Ave. RacinePost confirmed paint chips outside of all four homes on Sept. 17, and witnessed lead paint tests on chips recovered from each of the houses.
Photos submitted by Racine Housing Technician Bill Bielefeldt to the state Department of Health Services alleging unsafe lead practices at homes owned by the City of Racine.
City of Racine officials, particularly in the Health Department, take lead paint threats seriously. They have a local program to remove lead paint from homes, and doctors routinely report cases of lead poisoning to health officials for investigation.
|(Above) 1124 Irving Place.|
It's embarrassing that the city isn't following its own rules and concerns, Bielefeldt said.
"I would be just as much at fault as they are if I didn't report that," he said. "I didn't just go blindside them. I told them about this, and they chose not to do anything."
Bielefeldt is one of the city's chief advocates for lead-safe practices. Along with a local advisory group, he serves on a state committee for the Department of Health Services and received an award from the Realtors association for working to make homes lead free.
Despite his credentials, Bielefeldt's concerns went unanswered in his own department. The city suspended Bielefeldt without pay after he started to raise questions about lead-safe practices at the city owned properties. City Development officials, including Director of Development Brian O'Connell, acused him of "gross negligence" in working with the NSP. Bielefeldt said he expects to be fired.
After being suspended, Bielefeldt documented what he says are a series of major contractor violations on city-run projects, including lead-paint contamination. Using his contacts with the state, he notified the Department of Health Services and investigators are now reviewing the program.
|Sign on the door at |
1124 Irving Place.
O'Connell said his department, and the City of Racine, are leaders in removing lead from homes and following lead-safe practices.
"Contractors are required to be lead-safe contractors and work in a lead-safe manner," he said. "That's in our specs."
The state investigation is potentially disastrous for one of Mayor John Dickert's signature programs. The idea was to create a revolving fund of money with the city buying up homes in foreclosure, renovating them, selling them and then using the money to buy more homes. Dickert, a former Realtor, has said he hoped the program would improve the city's housing stock.
Now, the city is facing major violations for creating potentially hazardous conditions. The city's response to Bielefeldt?
It sent two uniformed police officers to Bielefeldt's Mount Pleasant home just before midnight on Sept. 17 to deliver a letter saying Bielefeldt was prohibited from all of the city's NSP sites.
Bielefeldt said it's clear the city was trying to intimidate him.
"What are they doing pulling officers off the street to be mailmen?" he said.
Here's the letter the city delivered to Bielefeldt just before midnight:
Mr. Bielefeldt;O'Connell declined comment on the letter, saying it was a personnel matter. He said he did not instruct police to deliver the letter in the middle of the night.
It has come to my attention that you have been on city-owned property
without authorization. Pursuant to your suspension of emploment beginning
September 10, 2010, you have been relieved of your duties as a Housing
Technician as of that date. Be advised that You are not to enter any city-owned
property under the control of this department, including but certainly not
limited to any homes that are now or are in the future in the Neighborhood
Further, you are not to contact any property owners participating in the
city's loan program or any related programs, such as downpayment assistance, and
you shall not represent yourself as a current City of Racine employee during the
course of your suspension and/or upon termination. As was said to you on
September 10, 2010, any requests for information from this department must be
made directly to me for response.
Failure to comply will result in the city seeking all civil and criminal
remedies available to it..
Brian F. O'Connell
Director of City Development
c: Scott Letteney, Deputy City Attorney
Five positive lead tests of paint chips collected outside of five homes owned by the City of Racine.
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