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STATE AND LOCAL NEWS ROUNDUP | Mold spores invade Texas health department offices… Court strikes down Pennsylvania welfare law … A drinking-water scare in Mississippi.
Good morning, it’s Friday, July 20, 2018. Los Angeles wrestles with a difficult twist in homelessness and an Austin office building mold infestation lead Route Fifty’s state and local government news roundup, which also includes stories from Baltimore, Maryland; Jackson, Mississippi; Des Moines, Iowa; and Las Vegas, Nevada. Scroll down for more ...
HOUSING | When she was 67, Andrea Colucci paid for medical bills with credit cards and, at one point, found herself broke and put out by a hospital “onto the sidewalk in a paper gown,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Three years later, she is living in a van with her dog, one of city’s burgeoning retirement-age homeless population. The Times notes that the number of homeless residents in the city aged 62-and-up has grown 22 percent in the last year, a product of spiraling housing costs, and a challenge to a system designed mainly to provide temporary relief to people in transition. Traditionally, Los Angeles City and County policymakers have been focused on helping older homeless people with so-called targeted interventions, including job training, legal aid, cash assistance and elder abuse protection. The county has asked staff to recommend new services. “Unlike other subpopulations…, there has not been a formal review and assessment of the needs of older adults,” a staff report said. Recommendations are due to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 15. [Los Angeles Times]
MOLD | In the humid offices of the Austin State Hospital 636 building, green and brown splotches of mold decorate the furniture. Spores spread around the skylights and in the drywall and rug fibers. They crawl up furniture and over computer keyboard pads. They attach themselves to employees’ shoes, the Texas Tribune reports after obtaining emails and a staff memo about the problem. Public health analysts who work in the building and specialize in infectious diseases find themselves researching mold during work hours. Some of the employees have been granted temporary leave. Others have relocated to open desks in nearby buildings. The mold has mocked preventative measures taken so far, the Tribune reports:
"The Department of State Health Services has so far spent $10,894.95 alone on dehumidifiers to fight the mold. As of July 2, the agency is renting six large dehumidifiers — $90 each for a total of $540 per day — so far racking up $9,720. In addition, the agency purchased five small dehumidifiers for $1,174.95."
The mold infestation at the 636 building is tied to a larger issue, Seth Hutchinson, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, told the publication. He said state buildings are plagued by broken elevators, leaks, mice, cockroaches and electrical outages because building maintenance has not been a state-budget priority. [Texas Tribune]
UNIONS | Jonathan F. Mitchell is Trump’s nominee to head the Administrative Conference of the United States, which advises the federal government on how to most efficiently do the work of governing and managing its employees. He also appears to be a driving force behind an ongoing national legal effort to further handicap public sector labor unions after last month’s Supreme Court decision striking down mandatory fees for workers who aren’t union members. Mitchell is the lead counsel in lawsuits arguing that unions should now be made to refund the fees that non-union members paid for years when mandatory fees were still legal, The New York Times reports. Those lawsuits target state and local officials, as well as unions. As Route Fifty’s Bill Lucia has reported, state or local governments “could end up on the hook for fee refunds depending on how the cases take shape, and how courts rule. A reason this possibility exists is that state and local employers were the ones that technically took fees from employees, before passing the money to unions.” [New York Times, Route Fifty]
Baltimore, Maryland: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded Baltimore $30 million to remake East Baltimore communities, including tearing down the Perkins Homes public housing complex and moving residents to new affordable housing. The federal grant is one of five being awarded to cities through the department’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. [Baltimore Sun]
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The state Supreme Court has voided Act 80, a six-year-old law that stripped welfare funds from 60,000 of the state’s residents. The court found that lawmakers failed to follow procedure in passing the law, cutting it up and rewriting it while rushing it through chambers—decidedly not the deliberative and open process called for by the state constitution. [PennLive]
Jackson, Mississippi: The Magnolia State health department has warned Jackson officials that the city violated safe drinking water standards by failing to maintain high enough pH levels to prevent pipe-lining lead and copper from dissolving in the water. City officials say that the lower pH level is not an emergency, that none of the dangerous metals have been detected in the water, and that they’re working to raise the pH level—but, in a letter to Jackson residents, they’ve also issued safe-drinking water guidelines “in the interest of being safe, not sorry.” Clarion Ledger]
Des Moines, Iowa: ICYMI, last week an Iowa ethics board ruled that, for now, candidates for office can’t use campaign funds to pay for childcare. The ruling comes on the heels of a Federal Elections Commission decision that took the opposite view, stating that, in certain circumstances, childcare could be paid through a candidate’s campaign funds. In Iowa, the ethics board members agreed that the gray area around the topic should be filled in by the state legislature. [Des Moines Register]
Atlanta, Georgia: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last week named 30-year-old Aliya Bhatia as the city’s first chief education officer and then days later, without public explanation, withdrew the job offer. Bottoms included a pledge to create the chief education officer position during her election campaign. Bhatia was supposed to start work with the administration this week. She had already moved to the city from Boston. [The Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
Las Vegas, Nevada: Last week, a court blocked what would have been the state’s first death row execution in 12 years and, in the days since, it has become clear that the case could drag on for many more years and that the death penalty in the state may have breathed its last. Capital punishment states have increasingly wrestled with pharmaceutical companies that object to their products being used in executions. Some states, such as Texas, Georgia and Virginia, have put in place potential backup methods of execution, including gas chambers and firing squads. The death penalty is still legal in 31 states. In some states, death row prisoners can choose non-pharmaceutical methods of execution. Depending on the state, they can choose to be electrocuted, gassed, shot or hanged. [Associated Press]
New York, New York: The Big Apple is Airbnb’s largest domestic market, but maybe not for much longer. City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to restrict Airbnb businesses by prohibiting renting out apartments for a few days at time. Officials said short-term rentals have worsened the city’s affordable housing crunch. [New York Times]
Houston, Texas: A grand jury indicted Darian Ward, former press secretary to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, for failing to turn over public records in response to a reporter’s request last year. The reporter asked Ward to produce any correspondence from her government accounts concerning her personal business activities—which turned out to add up to more than 5,000 emails. The grand jury found that Ward misrepresented that number and so “unlawfully, with criminal negligence … failed and refused to give access to… public information.” Ward resigned in January. [Houston Chronicle]
John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.