Fear and loathing at 230 St. Paul Street
The weather has finally warmed, and outside Vermont's largest low-income housing project, a half-dozen or so residents are parked on benches enjoying some sun and fresh air after a long winter indoors. For many of them, it's probably their first outing in months. The people who live at Decker Towers are more prone than most to hibernate, regardless of the season.
The 11-story building at 230 St. Paul Street -- the tallest building in Vermont -- is owned and operated by the Burlington Housing Authority (BHA) and home to about 160 residents, primarily the elderly and disabled. Some are confined to wheelchairs, others don't drive or own cars, or have family members nearby. As a result, their world can be confined to the building -- and in some cases, to a 500-square-foot apartment.
Recently, that world got even smaller. Two weeks ago, a flyer was posted on a bulletin board in the lobby, which reads: "There will be no events in the building from the Ladies' and Men's Club until further notice. Some people think the people don't want them. So we are sorry for the inconvenience." Beneath it, someone scrawled, in shaky handwriting, "This is no way to live."
The Ladies' and Men's Club dates back to 1979. It's the closest thing Decker Towers has to a tenants' association, and functions primarily as a social club. Until recently, the club sponsored pancake breakfasts, St. Patrick's Day dinners, Fourth of July barbecues, weekly bingo games and other monthly gatherings. Every resident in the building is automatically a member, meaning they can elect and serve as club officers, and pay a nominal fee -- usually a few dollars -- to attend events. The BHA gives the club $1500 each year in matching funds to supplement the cost of functions.
But in recent months, the Ladies' and Men's Club has been at the center of a heated controversy involving a handful of residents and club officers. Allegations have been flying about financial mismanagement and possible misuse of funds. Several residents claim they've been verbally harassed and even threatened by other residents. One tenant claims his windshield was smashed in retaliation for asking questions about the club's finances. Another resident, who is now the club's secretary, filed a lawsuit last month demanding a formal audit of the club's books. Describing a recent club meeting, one tenant said, "It was like Wrestlemania. The only thing missing was the cage."
To outsiders, the whole affair can sound like much ado about nothing, especially since the club's finances are so modest. Many tenants who aren't directly involved in the fracas express annoyance and frustration with all the in-fighting that's put the kibosh on their fun. "Oh, it's a mess when they get arguing," bemoans Lillian Downer, an eight-year resident of Decker Towers. "I just stay in my room and mind my own business." Another resident and former club officer who asked to remain anonymous, says, "All that bickering and back-stabbing? Forget it! I couldn't stand it so I got out. I don't even go to meetings anymore."
But the handful of tenants who have come forward to voice their concerns say there's more at stake than just a few hundred dollars that may have gone missing. They assert that it's more about residents having a bigger say in what goes on in their little community, which is largely isolated from the rest of Burlington.
"We're not talking about gigantic amounts of cash here," says Tony Pagliuca, a 52-year-old disabled plumber who's lived in Decker Towers for about a year and a half. "But it's huge for the people who live here because they have nothing. We're talking about people who are mentally and physically handicapped, people who are one step away from the street, like myself, and disenfranchised human beings who have no say and are scared to death to come forward."
Apparently, the trouble began about a year ago after several residents began asking questions about how the club's funds were being spent and documented. Dorothy "Dot" Brooks, who was then president of the Ladies' and Men's Club, says she started hearing complaints from other tenants, who warned her that she could be held liable if BHA money was being misused. "I started getting the cold shoulder," Brooks recalls. "Someone said to me, "Dot, you'd better wake up, because that's our money!'"
Brooks says she brought her concerns to the attention of Esther McGrath, who has lived in the building for eight years and has served as the club's treasurer for the last four. Most everyone in Decker Towers knows McGrath. She does much of the club's work, such as shopping and cooking meals, decorating the rec room, organizing bingo games, holding rummage sales and collecting fees. For years, she's also handled all the money and kept the books.
According to Brooks, McGrath didn't believe there was anything wrong. So as club president, Brooks obtained copies of the club's bank statements herself and found what she believed were discrepancies between the treasurer's reports and the bank statements, some of which totaled hundreds, some say thousands, of dollars. She showed the pile of papers to Pagliuca.
After he reviewed the bank records, Pagliuca brought his concerns to the attention of McGrath and other tenants. As a result, he claims he was "singled out" as a troublemaker and began receiving harassing phone calls in the middle of the night. He also claims his car was vandalized twice.
Pagliuca says he then "did what he thought any good citizen should do." He notified the police. A spokesperson for the Burlington Police Department says that they looked into Pagliuca's complaint about alleged financial wrongdoing. Finding no grounds for a criminal investigation, they turned the matter over to the BHA.
Then last fall, another resident, Laura Tisoncik, got involved. A self-described "former political activist," Tisoncik says she was skeptical about the allegations, but concluded that an audit might set the record straight. In January, when club elections were held, she ran for secretary, and won. But she says that after attempting to investigate the matter herself, she and McGrath "had words." In response, Tisoncik filed a lawsuit in March to get access to the club's financial records.
For her part, McGrath cannot understand what the fuss is all about. "I have no idea why they're saying all these things," she says. "I just want it to stop." Since McGrath is named in the lawsuit, she's been advised by an attorney not to discuss the specifics of the case or give anyone but the BHA her records.
"There's one thing I will tell you. An embezzler I am not," McGrath adds. "I don't need that money. I have enough of my own." The BHA has looked over her books, she adds, and determined that there's no basis for an audit.
In fact, others in the building charge that McGrath has been unfairly maligned, especially considering all the time she's devoted to tenants. "Esther McGrath is the best, in my opinion," says David Call, 40, who's lived in the building for 10 years. "She cooks all day long [for the tenants], she cleans up. She's relentless." Despite the complaints against McGrath, he notes, in January her fellow tenants reelected her to another term as treasurer by a two-to-one margin.
Paul Dettman is BHA's executive director. When asked about the Decker Towers brouhaha, Dettman sounds exasperated. He acknowledges that the club's finances weren't kept as well as they could have been, but says the BHA has been working with McGrath to improve her accounting methods, and has provided her with bookkeeping software to prevent questions from arising in the future.
But Dettman sees no reason to "go back and try to reconstruct the past." As director of the state's largest low-income housing agency with a $20 million operating budget, he has much bigger financial woes to worry about, such as drastic cuts to Section 8 housing assistance and a projected 10- to 15-percent reduction in his agency's capital improvement budget next year. As for the $1500 investment the BHA makes each year on the Decker Towers Ladies' and Men's Club, he believes the BHA gets "a very high value" for its money. "I guess in the big picture, I would consider this to be a tempest in a teapot," he concludes.
But Tisoncik, the club's secretary, is critical of how the BHA handled this controversy. "When you have a hostile situation, you can't just shut it off, which is what the BHA wants," she says. "If we continue to have a very weak tenant organization, people in low-income housing are going to be in a much more vulnerable position as cuts come in."
In the meantime, the rest of the residents of Decker Towers wait patiently for the trouble to blow over, so they can get back to their pancake breakfasts and Sunday bingo games.