Housing Authority Battles Bacteria, Bed Bugs

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CUMBERLAND - A bug-sniffing beagle is helping battle bedbugs for the Housing Authority of Allegany County. But, the bugs are only one of the challenges the high-performing agency is facing.

With budget cuts from the federal government looming, the housing authority is fighting a battle with Legionella bacteria along with the bedbugs.

Despite the difficulties, the authority routinely receives high marks from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and state authorities, said Beverly Lancaster, the executive director of the authority.

The authority has been forced into major expenditures because of the bacteria and the bedbugs.

The bacteria can cause Legionnaires' disease in susceptible people.

Legionella bacteria was uncovered at Grandview Apartments in Westernport late last year. One resident was diagnosed with the illness and later died, although the cause of death was not Legionnaires' disease, said Lancaster.

The water at Grandview was recently hyperchlorinated to take another stab at killing off the bacteria.

An earlier attempt to kill off the bacteria by superheating the water was initially successful early in the year, but the bacteria popped up again in later tests, Lancaster said. The testing is now contracted out to NALCO, an Illinois company, Lancaster said.

Residents are being advised to bathe rather than shower and to use distilled water in their medical apparatus.

Legionnaires' disease is caused by the Legionella bacteria, which can be found in many different water sources - manmade and natural. People most at risk of getting the disease are the elderly, smokers and those with lung or kidney disease, diabetes, cancer or weakened immune systems because of diseases or medications, according to an Allegany County Health Department statement.

Since Jan. 1, 139 cases of Legionnaires' disease have been reported in Maryland; three of these were in Allegany County. A case also was confirmed a year ago at Moran Manor in Westernport. Each year, between 8,000 and 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires' disease in the U.S.

The costs of the problems are hitting the authority budget hard.

One inspection and treatment for the bedbugs can cost $2,150.

The authority is currently having an inspection done every four months. "It is possible for these fees to total more than $6,450 in one year's time," Lancaster wrote in her Jan. 20 funding request to the county commissioners.

The bedbug inspections are being done by J.C. Ehrlich, she said.

Residents are being asked to be careful about bringing second-hand furniture into the buildings, "when you don't know where something's been," Lancaster said. She wants residents to make sure the furniture is in good condition.

Testing for the bacteria every two weeks costs about $1,300 per test and the cost of testing over a few month's time could top $10,000, Lancaster said.

"This is putting another financial strain on us, yet it is our desire to keep the citizens of the county that live at Grandview safe," she said.

Lancaster recently made a presentation to the county commissioners asking for level funding of $8,000 for fiscal 2013.

Commissioners have said they are considering small cuts in their contributions to many of the agencies they fund.

Federal funding will drop about $75,000 for operating expenses alone this year, Lancaster said Tuesday. "We have to use our reserves and cut expenses. There are only some expenses you can control."

For instance, Lancaster would like to do more advertising, "but it's not feasible," she said.

The authority is also selling some of the individual homes it owns and rents to families because of the high upkeep and renovation costs. Only eight such dwellings are left, down from 17.

The authority usually has scores in the high range of the three-tiered system used by HUD, Lancaster said.

The most recent ranking fell into the standard range solely because occupancy rates were lower than HUD prefers, Lancaster said. It's an "involved" scoring system, she said.

When she submitted her funding request, the authority still maintained the high ranking it had held for some time.

The HUD evaluation includes a comprehensive physical inspection, a test of financial stability and evaluation of management practices, Lancaster told commissioners.

"We continue to operate a Maryland State Department of Aging Congregate Housing Service Program at Willow Valley Apartments ... and have received excellent ratings by that office," Lancaster said. The authority offers housing for about 82 people including families, Lancaster said.