Note: This story launched a series of stories about the Alexander County Housing Authority. Read the rest of the stories here.

CAIRO – While some of the state’s poorest residents and children have been living in public housing here described as “third world” and unfit for humans, some employees and management of the Alexander County Housing Authority have collectively taken home hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars via questionable payments, bonuses, consultant contracts, retirement incentives and legal settlements in addition to their regular pay, according to federal and agency documents obtained by The Southern Illinoisan.

While denying any wrongdoing, even the agency’s former executive director who authorized much of the spending, and much of it for himself, admitted that part of the agency’s financial disaster can be attributed to salaries, benefits and incentives that were “too fat” over the years.

Residents say they live in squalor and fear

Meanwhile, those who are living in the housing authority’s developments, particularly the two in Cairo designated family developments and that predominantly house African-American adults that are not elderly and dozens of children, have just been barely hanging on as housing conditions deteriorate and violence escalates.

At one family housing development, McBride Place, residents -- at least 97 percent of whom are African-American -- describe serious problems with roaches, rats and, on occasion, bed bugs. They describe calls to the management office to register problems that are not followed through on, or cases where staff are rude when they ask for something as simple as rat poisoning. In a small playground area at the complex sits a rusty jungle gym and a swing-set frame without any swings. Weeds are growing through the cracks of sidewalks, orange concrete barriers are placed at random locations in the parking lot, and low-voltage wiring, presumably for cable and Internet, is strung haphazardly across the exterior of the building.

The sinks and bathtubs leak, causing problems with mold and mildew. Leaking air conditioning window units have stained the outside of the building. Garbage lines a side road, where a former teen center is boarded up. One mother, Myra Rayford, described spraying her 2-year-old child’s bed with Raid before he goes to sleep out of concern a cockroach may crawl into his ear. Security issues have gone unaddressed for years, residents say. Mothers of little children say they make them stay inside, out of fear they may be accidentally shot in a gang fight. The sound of guns firing is typical most evenings, they say.

In some units, bullet holes are visible in window sills. One resident said that when she’s in the living room, she lies on the floor out of fear a stray bullet will come through her window and strike her while she sits on the couch.

Documents detail generous benefits, incentives

According to documents and various interviews, the housing authority and its board also have for years negotiated contracts with the Laborers’ International Union North America Local 773 providing for generous salary and benefits packages for employees, as well as the politically connected executive director – whose executive contract called for listed benefits, or those in the union contract, whichever were greater. Essentially, that meant the executive director charged with negotiating on behalf of the agency an employee contract with the union also was essentially negotiating for his own benefits.

As an example of benefits enjoyed by employees, the current union contract includes two employer-funded pensions, one where about $6,000 per employee is paid into the pension fund managed by the union, and another private fund managed by the housing authority and contributed to by the agency at a rate of roughly 25 percent of an employee’s annual salary, with no requirement of an employee contribution. For some employees, the agency made payments matching upwards of 50 percent of their income into the two retirement accounts.

Employees also receive fully funded health insurance benefits valued at about $800 monthly for a single employee, and 90 percent funded for those who include spouses or children, valuing in excess of $1,400 monthly. Each Dec. 15, every employee, including the former executive director, was receiving a $1,500 performance bonus as part of their negotiated contract. At one time called a “Christmas bonus,” the payment was later defined as a performance bonus, though employee performance was never evaluated as part of the deal.

Actual December bonuses vary depending on a person’s income to guarantee that he or she cleared $1,500 after taxes. These taxpayer-funded bonuses have been made for years to housing authority employees around the holidays in an impoverished city in southernmost Southern Illinois where many of the people they are entrusted to serve go without. In Cairo, officials say upward of 25 percent of residents rely on public housing at any given time, and many of these residents, living in squalor, describe an epic struggle just to scrape together enough money every month to pay rent and stave off eviction while putting food on the table every day.

Financial situation dire

The financial situation had become so dire at the housing authority based in Cairo that paying the electric bill and meeting payroll had become an issue in recent months. Beyond that, there is little money available for even routine maintenance at housing complexes that were built around the time President Franklin Roosevelt was in office, haven’t been properly maintained during those 70-plus years, and likely have deteriorated to a point they are beyond repair, according to Tom Upchurch, the executive director of the Jefferson County Housing Authority, based in Mount Vernon, who has been retained on a six-month, $35,000 contract to oversee the agency while federal officials determine a next step.

“I’m trying to turn the (housing authority) around and help as many people as possible,” Upchurch said, adding that both of his employers and officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are aware of the agreement made for him to serve dual-roles in Alexander and Jefferson counties, until a more permanent solution can be reached.

‘Just like the state of Illinois’

In dozens of pages of documentation obtained by the newspaper, officials with HUD claim the Alexander County Housing Authority spent money intended for resident programs and building upkeep on themselves. They cite inappropriate contracts and legal settlements and excessive spending on travel to conferences, in addition to failure to maintain compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and discriminatory practices regarding upkeep at sites that are predominately housing black residents.

The former executive director, James Wilson, who oversaw the housing authority between 1989 and 2013 – acknowledged during a nearly two-hour interview with the newspaper Saturday morning that these generous labor contracts and other payouts to employees, including himself, have contributed to the agency’s financial problems, which also were compounded by congressional cuts to public housing programs administered by HUD.

Wilson also was mayor of Cairo for much of the time he was director of the housing authority. He held that office for 12 years until he resigned in 2003 after losing an election. He also has been involved heavily in Democratic politics in Southern Illinois, and once was the Democratic Party Chairman of Alexander County.

“I tell everybody we’re just like the state of Illinois,” Wilson said of the housing authority, referencing how state lawmakers for years sweetened retirement packages and union contracts for employees without a way to pay for it.

After a lengthy phone interview with the newspaper on Friday afternoon, Wilson additionally requested an in-person interview with the newspaper on Saturday morning to provide documents and explain why he believed he was acting in the best interest of the housing authority when signing off on hefty retirement incentives for several employees before he retired in early 2013, as well as to explain how payments made to him after retirement were intended to save the agency money.

The retirement agreements he signed allowed some employees to continue working one day a week or so, and continue to receive retirement and health insurance benefits as if they were a full-time employee.

Wilson, who holds a history degree from Southern Illinois University, said that in each case he believed he was saving the agency money by eliminating full-time salaries, but said the agreements also took care of the needs of loyal employees who agreed to retire early or take a temporary voluntary lay off as funding became an issue.

But after being pushed several times about whether the generous labor agreements and various payouts were excessive for employees of an agency charged with caring for the poorest of the poor, Wilson said he did have some regrets about how financial issues were handled during his tenure.

As an example of some of the packages he approved, documents show Wilson signed a “retirement agreement” with employee Bill Tatum, who worked in maintenance, in October 2012. Tatum received $15,000 as a cash buyout at his retirement – “with all benefits being paid” in December of that year, plus the agency agreed to continue to pay his full health insurance costs for two years, until he reached age 65. He additionally was allowed to continue to work one day per week, for which he was paid at his hourly rate, agency records show.

Another employee, David Hodges, Sr., whom Wilson described as his best friend and golfing partner, was provided a retirement agreement that included a $25,000 cash buyout “with all benefits paid” when he retired March 1, 2013, a $700 monthly insurance stipend to be paid until he reaches at 65, and two days of employment weekly, at $300 per week. Hodges worked various jobs, including maintenance and administrative duties, Wilson said.

Another employee, Ronald Clayton Greenley, who was a maintenance supervisor, entered into an agreement in June 2011, to a voluntary layoff of up to 18 months, during which time he could work one day per week and draw unemployment from the state. The contract reads that at which time he stops working and drawing unemployment, the agency would pay him $1,250 a month until he reaches age 65 on Aug. 16, 2016. The agreement also states he would still receive his December bonus of $1,500 in 2011, plus an 80 percent payout for unused sick and vacation days.

‘Lived it up too good’

“We lived it up too good,” Wilson said. “And we didn’t see this coming and we thought it would last forever and when the (federal) cuts came, we weren’t in a position to handle it. That’s exactly right.”

Wilson said it’s his opinion that HUD should come in and take over the agency, and that there’s no way for anyone but the federal government at this point to save it and provide sanitary, safe housing for the people of Cairo who are in need. He said it’s his opinion that the family housing units are of “third-world” condition “or worse.”

Before his retirement in spring 2013, Wilson, according to records he provided, was earning a gross salary of $97,009 as executive director of the housing authority. His total salary and benefits package cost the authority about $150,000, and included a roughly $23,000 payment to the authority’s pension plan, and a $5,500 payment to the union pension plan.

In two separate interviews, Wilson said that he believes the most serious deterioration of the family housing developments that are the most problematic happened after he left in 2013, and he said it wouldn’t make sense for him to accept blame for that since he’s worked only a handful of days in the past two years on behalf of the agency.

But during that time, since his retirement through January 2015, Wilson has received another roughly $100,000 from the agency – according to salary documents reviewed by the newspaper, an amount for which he made no apologies. That included a $50,000 payment made to Wilson on March 28, at his retirement, which he said was for ending his executive director contract two years early. He additionally received a $5,314 check, and a $23,474.50 check that day, which he said was compensation for unused vacation and sick time. His latest contract provided him 30 vacation days per year, in addition to sick leave, personal time and holidays.

After retirement, Wilson continued to receive monthly payments as a consultant under an 18-month agreement with the housing authority’s board for Wilson to work four hours per week at a salary of $2,500 per month. He was paid at a rate of about $144 hourly to, according to Wilson, come in between the hours of roughly 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. a few times a week and consult with the executive director who replaced him, Martha Franklin, the agency’s long-time finance director whom Wilson also describes as a “very good friend.”

Seven months into the consulting contract, HUD later determined Wilson’s consulting contract inappropriate, and the housing authority board responded by agreeing to a legal settlement with Wilson to pay the remainder of his contract in exchange for him not suing for early termination of the contract. In short, he received the remainder of what was called for in his consulting contract, but without requiring any work. HUD also determined this inappropriate, and Wilson has filed a lawsuit against his former employer seeking $12,000 for breach of contract and legal fees. The agency has filed a counter claim that his contract was illegal. The case is pending in Alexander County Circuit Court.

Wilson returned as director post-retirement

Franklin served as executive director from about March 2013 to January 2015, at which time she requested to be returned to the position of finance director, according to Wilson. Her 36-month contract was signed a year prior, in March 2012, for her to assume the job the following year. Her contract called for her to be paid a $5,000 lump sum should she “upon her sole decision” terminate the contract prior to its end, which she did.

Wilson said she also retained her position as finance director, and even though he was providing consultation, both positions proved too stressful and Franklin wanted to return to just being finance director. Payment stubs show she received a $5,000 check on Jan. 2, 2015. Wilson said the money was because she took on an extra duty overseeing security officers, but that contradicts language in the contract.

Upon Franklin announcing her decision to step down as executive director, Wilson said the authority began a national search to replace her, but said no one who applied met the basic qualifications to run the agency. That’s when Wilson said he agreed to apply and return to the agency full time for three months. But he said because of issues HUD had with his previous consulting contract, he stipulated as a condition of employment that he be paid up front for his service. So he signed an agreement to work for three months in exchange for a $15,000 one-time, lump-sum payment, records show.

But Wilson said he quickly learned that HUD officials at the regional office in Chicago were not interested in working with him, and he decided he wasn’t going to be able to provide what the agency needed. So he resigned after 11 days on the job.

But he didn’t return any of the $15,000 salary, because his contract included a clause that he would be able to keep the money even if the contract were to be voided by one party or the other. Wilson said it doesn’t bother him that he kept the money for work he didn’t perform. Returning some of the money wouldn’t have mattered “one iota” as it relates to the poor conditions people are living in, he said, as it wasn’t enough to make a dent in the agency’s massive needs.

He also said he’s not solely to blame for the agency’s financial problems, and pointed fingers in various directors.

“I take blame for it,” he said. “I give blame to the union negotiators. Everybody takes blame for it … The board, hell, they went along with it. The union went along with it. The employees went along with it. We all are part of the problem now.”

HUD cites agency for discriminatory practices

Federal HUD agents, following an assessment in June 2014, cited security issues at the family designated McBride and Elmwood sites, where predominately African-American residents live, including lack of enforcement in removing non-tenants who may be causing problems on site. They cite interviews with tenants who express concerns about gun fights, personal property crimes, drug dealing and gambling on the premises. The HUD document also states that security measures are not equitable throughout the agency’s developments, noting there are security guards and cameras at the Connell Smith building, which was designated solely for people who are elderly, and is now also open for people who are disabled.  

The administrative offices for the agency also are located at the Connell Smith building, which is much more integrated, with about 60 percent of residents white, and 40 percent of residents African-American.

It was under Wilson’s tenure, several years ago, when federal dollars under a HUD vacancy reduction program were used to convert several units in a building into a third-floor office suite that provided employees a beautiful view of the Ohio River. Administrative offices were previously on the first floor, without a river view.

In a Sept. 30, 2014 letter from HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, the agency is cited for a violation of Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance. The agency was cited for discriminatory practices that included lack of equitable maintenance and security attention at developments that are predominately African-American, compared to the slightly nicer buildings where more white people live, as well as discriminatory practices regarding employment and pay.

Housing officials cite lack of resources for security and maintenance as reasons for the discrepancy, though HUD officials write: “While the (agency) has basically pled ignorance and a preference for the status quo, none of these defenses qualify as a legitimate public purpose, or justification, for policies and practices that have a disparate impact on African-American households.”

Residents say they want to leave

“It’s like they just don’t care,” said Barbara Ware, who has lived for years at run-down McBride.

Ware is a single mom raising two children, a 7-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. Ware said she’s been looking for work, and recently applied at a convenience store up the road. She has no transportation, making getting to a job difficult, but said that if she’s hired she would be willing to walk there every morning to try to provide a better life for her children.

She’s on the waiting list for a public housing unit in Marion, and said she hopes to move to an area that keeps up with at least basic standards for public housing units.

During an informal conversation outside her apartment, Upchurch, who has been overseeing the agency since April, told her he understood her desires to move, but also said he’s trying to makes things better. Upchurch said the agency is working on an assessment of the buildings, to determine if they can be salvaged, and has increased cooperation with the Cairo Police Department in an attempt to combat crime. Upchurch said he also managed to make payroll and bring utility payments up-to-date.

Wilson has been extremely critical of Upchurch, saying he is “double-dipping” by holding both jobs, and isn’t putting in enough time in Cairo to turn things around. He’s filed several Freedom of Information requests for Upchurch’s contract in Jefferson County, and for various records as it relates to decisions and meetings of the Alexander County Housing Authority’s board, to which several new members have been appointed as others stepped aside or were not reappointed as these issues came to light.

He also sent a letter to HUD’s inspector general, requesting he look into misuse of federal funds with regards to Upchurch’s dual employment. And Wilson has sent various letters to tenants in recent months. One suggested things in the developments have gone south since he left, leading to vacancies, high crime rates, infestation and increased rent rates.

Another questioned why Upchurch was attempting to mix units separately designated “elderly” and “disabled,” even though allowing units to be both is in line with HUD policy and request. “Elderly and young don’t mix – I’m afraid your living conditions are going to decline tremendously and remember you have no security,” Wilson writes in the letter.

He adds: “I will continue to inform you of the actions of your executive director, costing the housing authority over $7,000 a month – and averaging only 10 hours a week in the office.” Wilson said he knows Upchurch's hours because his former employees keep him informed of when Upchurch is in town. Upchurch said he does much of the financial and other planning work with HUD officials remotely.

Wilson, later in the conversation, said he did have some regrets about his tenure as executive director: “Over the last 20 years, there were things that were too good.” He acknowledged union contracts and other salary agreements that were “too fat.” He said he wishes he had done some things differently. But he also said he didn’t think that doing things differently would have made life any better for the hundreds of people he acknowledged are living in conditions not fit for humans

But even given that, and the fact that most of the people agency employees were entrusted to serve have been living for years in substandard housing, Wilson said he did his best during his 24-year tenure and didn’t have “any problem sleeping at night at all.”

Meanwhile, a resident at McBride Place says she isn’t sleeping much these days. Loraine Johnson stays by herself in a unit where there are bullet holes in the window sills.

“At nights, I’m scared to sleep out here,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be shot at night, so I sleep on the floor in the living room so I don’t get hit.”

The Southern Illinoisan will continue to cover this developing story about the Alexander County Housing Authority in the days ahead.

Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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