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Air Force secretary visits MacDill, hears families' housing complaints

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: March 2, 2019

TAMPA (Tribune News Service) — Military families who have complained about mold and other issues with privately run housing at MacDill Air Force Base were visited Friday by the Air Force's top civilian official.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson quickly asked the base command staff to leave so the families could speak freely.

Wilson visited MacDill in the wake of Tampa Bay Times reports that several families say they have suffered health problems from being exposed to mold in their on-base homes. When the 9 a.m. "listening session" started, a resident expressed concern about being able to speak freely without fear of being retaliated against.

"(Wilson) stopped the meeting and asked anyone with affiliated with the wing command to step outside and shut the door," said base resident Amie Norquist, 31.

Col. Stephen Snelson and his staff then left the room, according to three people who were present.

Norquist, wife of an Army officer and mother of four, is one of nearly a dozen families who have told the Times about problems with mold, rodents, shoddy construction and a housing maintenance staff that responds slowly, if at all, to residents' complaints. She and Traci Lenz, 34, both attended the meeting and briefed the Times afterward. Lenz, a mother of three who is the wife of an Air Force noncommissioned officer, told the Times her family also has experienced health problems that they blame on exposure to mold.

Despite repeated assurances from Snelson to base personnel that they should feel free to come forward with their housing problems, residents have long feared being ostracized in the top-down military world as they shared stories about their housing nightmares.

In many cases, only the spouses have agreed to speak on the record with the Times. Green Beret Sgt. Maj. Jason Collins and Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Blaine Jones, two senior enlisted leaders at MacDill, said they came forward recently so that other families won't have to suffer through the problems theirs have. Each filed complaints with the base Inspector General's office over their housing conditions.

Once Wilson's meeting with the families got underway, the secretary told an audience of about two dozen that she believes there has been a lack of transparency between the housing company and the 6th Air Mobility Wing, which is MacDill's host unit. The families told Wilson that the wing was not being briefed fully by the housing companies about the scope of the problems.

Michaels Management Services president Ronald Hansen, whose company operates housing at MacDill and other bases, denied there was any effort to hide problems.

"That surprises me, I guess, because we are working at MacDill Air Force Base every day," Hansen told the Times after the families' meeting with Wilson. "There is nobody in my operation that has lied to anyone. We have no incentive to try and hide something."

Since 2007, MacDill's 527 homes have been run by Harbor Bay at MacDill. It is a partnership between Clarke Realty Builders and Michaels Management Services, which oversees housing management at MacDill.

After the visit, the secretary sent the following statement to the Tampa Bay Times:

"I talked to service members and their families at MacDill Air Force Base today about the quality and safety of their homes. I appreciate those who opened their doors to show me their concerns first-hand. We are working with the Army and Navy to understand and fix the problems with privatized housing."

Base officials also did not respond to requests for comment.

Wilson toured the on-base housing before meeting with families in two sessions, one a small group of families attended by Norquist and Lenz, and the other session the base commander left.

Lindsey Farrington, 32, is a mother of three and whose husband is an Air Force noncommissioned officer. They moved into base housing in August and started experiencing problems right away, such as mushy floors and mold. The problems, she believes, have sickened her family repeatedly.

Farrington said it was helpful to hear that Wilson shares the families' reservations with the housing operator. Her concerns are with the management company, however, not the base commander.

"Col. Snelson has been on our side the whole time," she said. "He has been very responsive."

Lenz said she was concerned that Wilson would tour locations that housing officials would have had the chance to spruce up in advance. But Lenz said she felt relieved to hear Wilson picked her own locations to visit.

Norquist said she was disappointed there wasn't a chance to hear more about how the Air Force will deal with the housing issue facing military bases run by all the services across the country. Norquist said one question she is waiting for an answer on is what will the Air Force will do about the long-term health consequences the families face?

Her oldest daughter, 12, was hospitalized recently for a lung biopsy and might need years of care, the mother said.

Farrington wishes more time had been spent discussing health concerns. Lenz also fears the long-term ramifications. She said her 13-year-old daughter developed a cyst in her arm. But she was grateful the families had a chance to air their grievances with the highest-ranking civilian in the Air Force.

But she also would have liked to hear more about how officials intend to fix all of the problems.

"I didn't feel like there was a lot of progress made as far as immediate changes," Lenz said. "But I do feel like this could be a catalyst to new changes that should happen."

The issue of mold at MacDill isn't new. In 2014, Rep Kathy Castor, D-Fla., introduced language in the defense spending bill calling for the Pentagon to conduct a report for Congress on the prevalence of black mold in buildings located on military bases and that buildings found to contain black mold should be added to the appropriate priority list for replacement or renovation. The Senate didn't approve the measure.

Castor said she introduced the measure over concerns about mold in the first-floor of the mission support facility on base, where base employees and veterans obtained credentials and assistance with benefits. She also raised the issue of mold and other problems at MacDill housing with Wilson during a January breakfast meeting.

"Col. Snelson informed me about the mold issue in Harbor Bay base housing during my meeting with him at MacDill AFB on Dec. 14, 2018," she said in a statement to the Times. "He advised that he and the Wing were pressing Harbor Bay to fix the problems as soon as possible. At a Jan. 16, 2019 breakfast meeting with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, she said that the Air Force has a few similar issues with mold across AF facilities, but had not heard of this issue of mold at MacDill Harbor Bay. I followed up with Col. Snelson later that day to let him know that I mentioned it to the Secretary. He advised that Harbor Bay was remediating properties at MacDill."

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