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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 23, 2010

Claims trailer-park sewer violations are to blame
On the verge of eviction, a mother pleads for help

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — After years of feeling mistreated by neighbors, and coping with an IQ of 69 while raising two children with disabilities, Rebecca Michael is being evicted from her trailer park home next week.

The park has septic violations, which Michael and her family believe has sickened her son and is the reason behind her eviction, although officials say this is unlikely.

“At least they’ve got Christmas,” said Kathleen DeMarco, a worker from Catholic Charities who helps Michael with organizational, parenting, and cooking skills. As of Tuesday, Michael was to be evicted on Christmas Eve.

“I’ll probably be out on the street,” Michael said Wednesday afternoon. “I have no place to go. My mom has problems and can’t take the stress of the kids.”

But on Wednesday night, Knox Judge Jean Gagnon stayed the eviction till Dec. 29. Only Michael and her family had showed up in court on Wednesday, and another hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 29 so that representatives of the Knox Estates Trailer Park can be present.

While the trailer itself is owned by her parents, the lot on which the trailer sits is owned by an association of homeowners at the park, and Michael had been far behind on her rent.

“I had the house all cleaned, just got my new couch, shampooed the rugs, the kids were finally getting settled and under control,” Michael, 35, told The Enterprise Wednesday. “Now, I might have to put my daughter on suicide watch, because she’ll probably have a mental breakdown because of her mood disorder.”

Her daughter, Christina, just turned 11. She is bipolar, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is speech impaired, and has oppositional defiant disorder — a condition that causes her to become physically violent towards authority figures. Christina takes Abilify, a medication sometimes used to treat schizophrenia and mania in addition to bipolar disorder.

Christina also just lost her teacher; Meri-Beth Spring, a special-education teacher at Berne-Knox-Westerlo Middle School, resigned as of Monday’s school board meeting.

Michael’s 8-year old son, Dartanyen, has problems, too: He has a bacterial growth in his abdomen caused by an infection, and may have to have parts of his intestine and colon removed. He also has spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, severe asthma, ADHD, and is autistic.

Both children have speech problems and learning disabilities.

“He’s going to be on a probiotics pill for the rest of his life,” Michael said of her son’s stomach condition, “and he keeps having accidents in his pants.”

Cathy Whiteley, Rebecca Michael’s mother, thinks that Dartanyen’s infection can be blamed on the park’s faulty septic system, which she said backs up on the Michaels’ property, and the children have played in the raw sewage, she said. Michael said this week that a doctor at Albany Medical Center concluded that the condition was caused by bad drinking water.

Whiteley also thinks that the tenants’ association wants to kick the family out of the park in order to get underneath the trailer and repair the septic system, but an inspector at the Albany County Health Department says this is unlikely, as the septic system is hundreds of feet from her trailer.

Whiteley also said that the tenants’ association has spread lime and pesticides on the property without informing them.

Most neighbors could not be reached for comment, and one of Michael’s next-door neighbors said that they had not witnessed the family being mistreated.

Unpaid rent

Michael has been taken to Knox Town Court on several occasions since she got behind on her rent.

On Wednesday night, Judge Gagnon said that, at the original hearing on May 5, 2010, it was determined that Michael owed $2,920 in back rent plus interest; the monthly lot rent is $385. Michael was to be evicted, but the court gave her close to seven months to find a new home, and she was to then be evicted on Dec. 1. She was instead given until Christmas Eve, according to the notice of eviction issued by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department this week. Now, she has yet another week.

Michael’s husband left in 2003, she said, and paying the rent became an even greater challenge than it had previously been. Michael’s medication alone costs $3,000 a month, said Whiteley at the Knox court on Wednesday, which Medicaid helps pay for. But Michael fears that, if she were to move in with her parents, she would lose some of her benefits.

She gets food stamps, as well as aid through the Section 8 program of the United States Department Housing and Urban Development, and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.

Michael used the money she received for rent for food instead, her mother said in a letter to the editor.

“She had to choose between paying the rent and feeding her kids,” Mrs. Whiteley told The Enterprise. “My granddaughter is so skinny. She chose to feed the kids.”

“We’re getting less SSI because they’re trying to tell me [Christina] is not handicapped anymore,” said Michael.

She had sought help from the Albany County Department of Social Services, which offered to pay her rent this past March, but the mobile home tenants’ association denied the payment. For the last eight months, Michael has paid her rent, Whiteley said.

On a notice dated April 13, 2010, the department writes, “The landlord is not going to accept the money and let you remain in the park. Agency will not pay an eviction payment when you are going to be evicted anyway.”

“If it’s about the money, why didn’t they just take the check?” Michael asks.

Lillian Relyea, the current president of the tenants’ association, could not be reached for comment on why the association would not accept the payment; Ralph Fusco, former president of the association, told The Enterprise this week, “It’s in the attorney’s hands; you don’t need to know it, and I don’t need to spread it.”

While social services could not comment on this specific case, a department spokesman said that a landlord has every right to deny payment from a tenant that is to be evicted.

“Our first rule here is housing first,” said David Kircher, deputy commissioner of social services. “We do everything within the state regulations to ensure a person is maintained in their own home, and that’s after going through all the calculations to determine if they’re eligible… If the landlord says, ‘We’re evicting them; we’re not taking the money,’ there’s nothing we can do at that point.”

Judge Gagnon stressed this at court on Wednesday; any business owner has the right to say, “I want to have a smooth running business,” said Gagnon, “which is what this is — a business.”

Kircher said that Michael’s Section 8 funding, a federal program run by Housing and Urban Development to help the poor with housing, and SSI would be portable.

“SSI is a federal program and has nothing to do with if she has to move; it’s based on your disability, so that wouldn’t be affected,” Kircher said. “Generally, Section 8 follows the person with the award. So, if you were going to move, you could bring your Section 8 award to a new apartment or wherever they’re moving to, but the landlord has to be willing to accept it, and the apartment would have to meet federal HUD standards.”

Seeking help

Between now and next Wednesday, Michael hopes to find some other means of shelter for herself and her kids.

“I’m praying to God someone else will help me extend my time there till I can find a better home for my kids,” she said.

“We help as much as we can,” said Mrs. Whiteley. Her husband, Clifford Whiteley, who had worked as a trucker, has been out of work for two years and his unemployment benefits just ran out.

The Whiteleys live in Berne and have another disabled daughter living with them, she said; Mrs. Whiteley is in a wheelchair. They’d like to have Rebecca as well but, in order for her to qualify for various government programs, she has to be living on her own, said her mother.

Mrs. Whiteley said she and her husband help Michael and her children every day.

“We dress them, we feed them at night,” she said. “We take water down there because the water’s bad.” Park tenants have received numerous notices over the years to boil their water.

Septic problems

Members from both the Albany County Department of Health and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation commented this week on the trailer park’s septic problems, and the ongoing struggle to get funding for a recently designed project that will upgrade the park’s two septic systems to one high-tech sewage disposal system.

The Knox Estates Trailer Park was inspected last year as part of a statewide initiative to check on some of the area’s smaller septic systems.

“We recently, this past fall, did a check of some of our lower priority SPDES permits just to check up on them,” said Rick Georgeson, a spokesman for the DEC, referring to state pollutant discharge elimination system permits. Knox Estates was inspected on Sept. 20.

“These lower priority ones, sometimes we don’t get to check on them for a number of years because they’re not our major facilities on the Hudson or the Mohawk,” Georgeson said, “so we made an initiative to check out the smaller ones.”

The inspection of the system at Knox Estates returned a number of findings.

“We found some administrative issues,” Georgeson said, “like, they weren’t properly monitoring the discharge like they’re supposed to, and there was supposed to be proper signage around the outfall pipe, where a pipe discharges into a stream for the wastewater treatment. And recordkeeping; they weren’t properly keeping records.”

The trailer park, formerly run under the name Bri-Mar, had a history of sewage problems; two decades ago, the town won a case in state court that required Bri-Mar to adhere to its sewage regulation.

On Nov. 9 of this year, the park was given a notice of violation by the DEC, to which the park has not yet responded.

Of what might happen if the DEC receives no response, Georgeson went on, “It could range anywhere from another letter to formal enforcement proceedings, which would involve a fine. We usually try and work with these types of small operators to bring them into compliance before we begin formal enforcement proceedings. We would rather that the park use their limited funds to come into compliance and fix any outstanding issues rather than pay for fines.”

According to Thomas Brady at the Albany County Department of Health, those funds will soon be put towards a project to install a new system that has been in development for some time now. Brady inspected the park himself in the summer of 2009.

“They have spongies — kind of like soggy ground, which means they’re not working properly,” Brady said of the park’s two septic systems, one of which is from the 1990s, and the other, from the 1980s; Brady could not recall precisely which years they went in. “They haven’t failed in the sense that things are spewing out, but they need to be replaced…We actually have ordered them to fix it.”

The plan, he said, is to completely remove the two systems currently in place, and replace them with one state-of-the-art sewage disposal system. While he could not recall the exact cost of the project, Brady said it will cost well over $100,000.

Brady went on to say that, while he knew nothing of the Michaels’ situation, he thought it unlikely that Dartanyen’s abdominal infection was caused by bad water, as was asserted by the Michaels’ doctor.

“The septic system’s a great distance from the well,” Brady said. “I mean, anything’s possible, but I doubt that. They chlorinate the water; they disinfect the water. As far as the water, they’ve had a good history.”

He went on to say that an inspector from the health department makes it out to check the septic system about once a month.

“We have a guy, part of his job is to inspect mobile home parks,” said Brady. “Part of his inspection is to walk over the systems. Sometimes it’s just a whiff test.”

There is currently no timeline for the project, as obtaining funding has been an issue.

“They’re essentially getting a second mortgage to pay for this,” he said. “Now, it’s almost impossible to get it in; Knox is a little higher elevation, so ground freezes faster there. So, the building season is essentially over.”

But, based on recent tests, Brady said the current system is unlikely to fail before the new one can be put in.

“‘Septic’ generally has a limited connotation, whereas some of these systems can do more,” Brady concluded of the newer system to be installed. “Sewage disposal is a science unto itself. Most people flush the toilet and don’t think twice.”

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