Village housing program questioned

Published 6:42 am Friday, April 16, 2004

By By MARCIA STEFFENS / Cassopolis Vigilant
CASSOPOLIS -- A web of words and confusion surrounded the Village of Cassopolis housing grant program. Misunderstanding and mistakes are words that continued to be repeated during a special meeting last week on Wednesday evening of the Village of Cassopolis concerning its housing and rehab grant programs.
The Community Housing Initiative's (CHI) staff, "in spite of training, didn't understand," said Village Manager Art Sciorra, and had "no intent to misrepresent" the program.
Still to Tim and Sandy Swenor, who say not knowing the full picture of what all the requirements would be to participate has caused stress, time trying to find out and money.
As these owners of The Home Group at 104 S. Broadway decided to fix up the upstairs of their business as two apartments, they said they were told by Sciorra they were eligible for a grant from the state.
Their original application was filled out in January of 2003. Sandy said Sciorra told them to save their receipts for work being done, and were told they were approved for the program back in September 2003.
On Nov. 11, Sandy said she was told the money they had already spent, verified by her receipts, had met the match required by applicants. She was told by Mike Joyce, an employee of CHI, to look for contractors and to start on additional work they had discussed and shown cost estimates to CHI.
On Dec. 8, Sandy said Sciorra called and gave them two hours notice about a grant meeting, which they were unable to attend, but could they send a letter thanking the village for helping them get this grant.
That letter, included in the council's board packet would lead anyone to believe the grant program was right on schedule and all were happy.
According to the Swenors immediately following the problems started. After the work was done, and the contractors wanted to be paid, they were told they didn't meet the qualifications of the program. We owe $20,000, plus an additional $10,000, Sandy told the council.
She further claimed when she tried to get "a square answer," she "couldn't get past Art."
Sciorra who said "I don't recall the conversations" and "I never told you to save receipts," referred to her claims as an "urban legend."
But he added, the Swenors were eligible for a different program.
But the Swenors want their contract honored -- the one they signed -- "not another program."
Dan Lee asked that the council set up a committee to oversee the grant program, "to prevent" this again from happening again and to "report back. It is embarrassing. The community loses trust."
One of the newest council members, Maxine Snipes, said she ran for the board because she herself was left in a similar situation as the Swenors, when she signed up for a grant years ago.
William Curry, another new member of the council, tried to have Sciorra and Oleksak leave the "technical jargon" behind. "The property owner needs to know at the beginning, not the end," he added.
Another member of the public who spoke was Sue Amy, of 224 W. State St. She said she and her husband Jim withdrew their application for the grant and returned the $11,000 they had already received in two checks from the village, when they learned also more about the program, long after their grant had been approved.
One point was the rent they could charge for the apartment was only $560. Sue added she was "visited at my place of work by Jim Oleksak, of CHI," which was the Law and Courts where she is a District Court reporter, and told to sign a lien.
Then she asked who had sent the Michigan State Police to investigate her husband. Though Police Chief Frank Williams, said he wouldn't answer without legal counsel, Sciorra admitted he reviewed documentation with Village President Julia Bell and the village attorney and turned it over to the state police.