BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (May 17) — Tempers flared, during a called meeting of the Dresden City Board on Tuesday, May 17, when certain aldermen expressed dissatisfaction over the handling of the debris removal, following the December 10, 2021, tornado that devastated large areas of the city, including several governmental, commercial and residential buildings.
The meeting was called for the purpose of reviewing bids submitted by two debris removal monitoring companies and to consider the position of building inspector for the City of Dresden.
However, as the meeting got underway, a heated argument erupted between Alderman Gwin Anderson and Mayor Jeff Washburn over the pickup and removal of debris and the potential for litigation by property owners.
Anderson asked if all of the debris from houses that have been piled next to the street, and at the water tower, are eligible for FEMA funding to haul it to the dump.
Washburn stated some of it is not. He noted some of the houses were torn down through the property owner’s insurance, but the demolition contractor pushed the debris into the street, or unloaded it at the Jones Street property adjacent to the city’s water tower, instead of carrying it to a certified dumpsite like they were supposed to.
“What I’ve been hearing is, if they get it to the street, FEMA is going to take care of them,” Anderson said. “Is that not what you’ve been saying?” he asked the mayor.
“That’s not 100 percent correct” Washburn replied.
“That’s what you’ve been saying!” Anderson reiterated.
“No, I haven’t said that,” Washburn insisted. “Here’s what FEMA is telling us to do, if we know a house was torn down and pushed to the street, the cleanup contractor probably should skip over that for the time being, and go to the next location where it’s just debris. Technically, if a house is demolished and pushed to the street, FEMA has most recently told us it’s not supposed to be covered as far as cleanup cost is concerned.”
The mayor stated the Corps of Engineers estimates there is approximately 220,000 cubic yards of debris generated by the storm and this is the figure adopted by FEMA. “They drove through the city and looked at the debris piles at the sandpit on Highway 22 and the Jones Street pile around the water tower. That’s the figure they came up with and, and that’s sort of the figure they’re going to work with as far as how much debris we’ve got.”
Anderson asked if someone is needed to monitor the debris piles at the water tower, where debris from several insured structures, including Dresden’s Methodist Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church and several houses, were dumped. “Do we need a monitor to haul those off; because that’s 100 percent at city expense, right?” Anderson asked.
“Potentially, yes,” the mayor replied.
“In that big pile up there, there’s a chance a lot of that is the city’s business (responsibility), not FEMA’s, right,” Anderson said.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Washburn said.
Anderson exclaimed, “Who does?”
Washburn said, “I don’t know.”
According to Washburn, “Debris that was picked up off the streets, and was not attached to a standing structure, is eligible to be hauled off. A lot of that came out of our streets, if you recall.”
Anderson asked if the debris from the house on the corner of Cedar Street and Main is eligible for FEMA debris removal.
“No,” the mayor replied.
Anderson asked, in the mayor’s estimation, how much of the debris cleanup is the city responsible for.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” the mayor replied. “I haven’t got the means to estimate the volume and weight of that, and I doubt if any of you sitting here have that means either.”
Anderson said, “A person in your position ought to be looking for that answer.”
“Well, we have asked for that answer,” Washburn said. “You’re free to come to the same meetings Alderman Kenneth Moore has.”
“I’m not the administrator of this city – you are,” Anderson said. “I sit here and vote on proposals that come up to me, and for the past six months, you’ve been telling us FEMA was going to take care of this.”
Washburn was adamant that he had not said that, but Anderson was insistent that he had.
“FEMA is going to reimburse up to 90 percent of the cost of what they approve,” Washburn said.
“Of what they approve – that’s the first time I’ve heard that!” Anderson said.
Next, Anderson inquired about the debris from buildings on the south side of the court square.
“That was totally hauled off by the City of Dresden,” the mayor replied.
The debris removal contractor hired to haul off all of the city’s debris is Quality Contractor Services headquartered in Milan, which agreed to haul the debris to an approved landfill at a cost of $50 per ton.
“Did we have anybody sign off on getting their property demolished?” Anderson asked.
Washburn stated that Mr. Frank Peeler signed off on having his property demolished, Tony E. Winstead filed a request for demolition, and Dickie Hutcherson gave his verbal consent. He stated documents were submitted to every property owner on the south side of East Main Street across from the courthouse.
When Anderson asked if any documents were returned to the city before beginning demolition, Washburn stated there was one that was returned from Mr. Peeler.
“You’re a lawyer; do you think that would hold up in court?” Anderson asked.
“It probably would, and I think Dickie would probably come here and tell you that he agreed to the demolition,” Washburn said. “He and I have discussed it multiple times.”
Anderson stated he was concerned that the city was going to be out 100 percent of the cost for demolition and open to litigation for going onto properties before the owners approved it.
“I’m sure that you’ll push that as much as you can,” Washburn said.
Anderson said, “I’m just looking out for the city, Jeff. You know, I’m thinking, goodness gracious, we’ve got a mayor who’s an attorney that’s going to be looking at all of this stuff.”
“We had every one of those individuals here,” Washburn said.
“Yeah, but did they sign anything?” Anderson asked.
Washburn responded by saying that all of the other property owners came to the meetings except for Mr. Peeler, who signed off on the demolition and Dickie Hutcherson, who knew about the meetings, but did not attend. However, he gave his verbal consent. “They were all in agreement,” Washburn said.
“Unless they put their signature on the line, they didn’t agree to anything,” Anderson argued.
“Can we move on?” The mayor asked.
“Where do you want to move to?” Anderson asked.
“To consider this monitoring contract,” Washburn replied. “When you get done with your political grandstanding, let’s move on.”
“It’s not political grandstanding Jeff,” Anderson replied. “You’re not doing a good job in my opinion!”
Washburn responded by saying, “I have that same opinion about some of you sometimes.”
“When we go into something and you don’t get signatures, and now we’re sitting here with piles of debris, where you’ve been saying FEMA’s going to take care of it, what are you going to do about it?” Anderson asked.
Washburn replied, “No, I did not say that FEMA is going to take care of it. I have said that FEMA would reimburse us for the (authorized) debris that’s picked up.”
Alderman Lyndal Dilday said, “You said landowners (need to) get it to the road.”
Washburn replied, “No! No! Here’s what happened. If you recall, from the very earliest, I posted on our Facebook page, if it was insured, it was the responsibility of the homeowners to have it hauled off when they had the demolition done – the very first posts. From then on, for a while, we did that. Then, the information changed that we got from FEMA on what they would do, and you have no idea how difficult it’s been to get a straight answer out of FEMA.”
Dilday asked, “But, it wasn’t told if they pushed the debris from their houses to the road that FEMA would get it?”
Washburn said, “I didn’t tell that. Now, let me tell you, somebody did tell them that. It was somebody who was a volunteer that was telling that. I didn’t tell them that. I got chewed out two or three different times, because I told people that they could not do that.”
“So, what you’re saying is, all that we have pushed to the side of the road, the city’s going to be liable for that?” Dilday asked.
“Potentially,” Washburn said.
“What’s the dollar figure that the city might be liable for?” Anderson asked.
“The total estimated cost is $1.5 million,” Washburn said. He noted, if FEMA pays 90 percent of this amount for debris cleanup, the remaining 10 percent would cost the state and city a combined total of $150,000, with each responsible for $75,000.
“Let me tell you who is responsible for that, and that was by agreement, is our contractor who tore those down and they hauled it to the water tower site with the understanding that it would later be hauled to a landfill,” Washburn said.
Anderson asked if Washburn had that in writing to which Washburn said, “No, I don’t.”
“How are we supposed to determine for this contractor we’re trying to vote on, which piles are we going to say is FEMA’s and which piles are we going to say are not? How? What’s your plan?” Anderson asked.
Washburn said, “What FEMA advised us to do was, piles that represented completely destroyed houses that were on the ground, would be a pick-up house. If it was a house that was demolished, that would be a house that you should probably skip by and not pick that up.”
Washburn said that the city has applied for individual assistance personal property clean-up from FEMA. He said, “FEMA would come in and pay for people to have their properties cleaned up. He stated that this would be another means of having that clean-up done for property owners.
Anderson stated the debris piled at the water tower is all mixed together, so how can it be determined how much the city is responsible for. “What is the percentage?” He asked.
Washburn stated he didn’t know, and asked Anderson, “You tell me how much you think (the percentage is)?”
“I’m not in meetings every day, Jeff,” Anderson said.
“I’m not in meetings every day either,” Washburn said. “I’m making a living, as well as trying to clean up my own property. It’s easy for someone like you to be critical, when you haven’t participated in anything.”
“It’s not my responsibility, Jeff,” Anderson argued.
“It is!” Washburn insisted.
“I come to every meeting that we have. It’s not my responsibility,” Anderson said angrily. “Show me where I have any responsibility other than to come in here as a committee. I have looked in the charter and have zero power to do anything, other than my membership of this board. I come in here and ask you questions. If you look at the charter, you’ve got the power to do these things. You’re the one who’s responsible for informing me. So don’t put it off on me that I’m not doing my job when I come to every dang meeting you got.”
Washburn told Anderson that he should be asking questions at those meetings instead of political grandstanding.
“I’m not political grandstanding! I’m finally figuring out how inept you are!” Anderson exclaimed.
“You don’t like that?” Anderson asked.
Washburn said, “No I don’t like it.”
“Okay. Say something then!” Anderson said.
Washburn replied that he didn’t have to say anything. He told Anderson, “You could be out here doing some of this stuff.”
“What? Volunteering?” Anderson asked.
“Yes! Washburn said.
“I signed on for $50 per month to come to meetings, but it’s not about the money” Anderson said. “I absolutely have zero power. I can’t call a department head and tell them to go anywhere. I can’t tell anybody else what to do. It is not in my power to do that. I come here, as a member of this committee and vote, and that’s it. I expect you to inform us. I expect you to show due diligence.”
Anderson said the city had buildings located across the street from the court square torn down, “without getting a signature on anything from the property owners. It’s going to be a miracle if we’re not in litigation.”
“I doubt it,” Washburn said. There are only one or two property owners concerned that we don’t have a signature on a document.” He stated they are Dickie Hutcherson (who gave verbal consent) and Keeley (Wilson) Nanney. The mayor added he received a request for demolition from Mr. Winstead.
Alderwoman Sandra Klutts said, “So really, that is a request for, but it wasn’t an authorization for demolition. Is that going to stand up and be the same thing as authorization, when he signed it in December, but wasn’t carried out until May?” she asked.
Klutts stated Mr. Winstead said he hired a private company that was supposed to tear his building down. She noted he said he didn’t get his stuff out. “And I wonder, is that true?”
Mayor Washburn explained, “When he signed a request for demolition in December, he said he’d need a few weeks to remove his stuff. From December through April, that’s quite a few weeks.”
“Did he know it was going to be torn down the day it was (demolished)?” Klutts asked.
“He attended the meeting (that the contract was voted on), and you all approved the contract,” Washburn said.
However, Klutts stated that none of the property owners voted on that.
Washburn stated property owners may not have had the opportunity to vote on it, but they were all present and had an opportunity to speak and object.
“I know Ms. Wilson was upset at the meeting that night, and when she left, I don’t think she had the answers she was wanting,” Klutts said.
Moore said Ms. Wilson was not treated well, and, “somebody owes that lady an apology.”
“I do think she was treated poorly that night; and I really feel bad that, as a board, we didn’t address that,” Klutts said.
Concerning his handling of Dresden’s disaster relief response, Washburn asked the board, “How many of you received a manual that tells you how to handle a natural disaster?”
“None of us,” Klutts replied.
Washburn said neither he nor Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum had a manual to go by, and that they have been trying to follow FEMA’s guidelines. “We have been meeting for weeks on end in the morning and afternoon, and we discussed these same issues over and over. We talked with TEMA people. We talked with FEMA people.”
Washburn stated he and Bynum received mixed answers regarding their questions. “These people are supposed to be the experts and know the answers. But, what they told us wasn’t always (correct) with what the situation was, particularly the debris (removal). The debris collection was the number one issue and concern of all of us involved in the incident command team. We had multiple meetings with FEMA and had at least three or four different answers.
“If that’s being inept, when you act on what the experts tell you, I plead guilty,” Washburn said. Because I relied on what FEMA told me. And, if you talk to our Integrity Group we’ve hired, they’ll tell you FEMA is notorious for giving you multiple answers, or answers that aren’t correct. So, we acted on what we thought was in the best interest of the citizens.
“We started out not moving any debris unless it was covered by insurance,” Washburn said. He stated no debris from businesses was moved at that time, unless it was out in the street. “That’s where a lot of Tony Winstead’s debris landed – on Wilson Street; and at one point, it was pretty much across the street.”
According to Washburn, “There are hundreds of pictures that have been sent to document the debris situation after the storm.” He stated there were streets all over town that were blocked by downed electric lines, telephone poles and telephone lines. He noted FEMA counts these items as “debris in the street” that can be cleaned up and hauled off. It’s just the standing buildings that were demolished that are in question. For example, Washburn mentioned three houses in a row on West Main Street that were completely destroyed and there was nothing left but debris. “These are eligible buildings to be cleaned up,” he said. “What is not eligible is Kathy Gallimore’s house. It was heavily damaged and there was debris in the street and in the yard, which could be cleaned up, but, the part that is still standing is not eligible. And how do we determine that, I don’t know.”
“We were told there is a grant for individual assistance that would pay the cost for these individual homeowners to clean up their yards and things,” Washburn said. “We have applied for that. We have asked for it. If that’s being inept, Gwin, I’m sorry for trying to help the citizens of this city. But, that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what Jake and I both did. And we’ve done it continuously to the point it would just about kill you at times – through that first month or two.
“If you want to call that inept, then go ahead and call it inept. I don’t really care. I’m at that point. I’m going to do everything I can to help the citizens of this community get their yards and properties cleaned up.
“A large part of that money that came in from donations was from people I’ve dealt with and talked with and tried to coordinate with, so we can get that money. Right now, there’s about $771,000 to assist people that have not been made whole by their insurance, SBA or Red Cross.” He stated these funds will be distributed by the Allocation Committee of the Long Term Recovery Group, which determines where the recovery funding goes.
Washburn said, “There were contractors that worked on Saturdays and Sundays, knowing there would be no city people there monitoring anything, or the debris sites. And, there were a lot of houses torn down in this community by demolition contractors who work on those days and haul (the debris) off on Sundays to our debris sites (instead of a landfill).
“There was one contractor I really got chewed out about. He charged a lady $18,000 to tear down her twin houses, and left the debris laying on the lot, saying that’s all his contract calls for, and the city’s going to haul it off. This was early on. It happened in January. I said, No! No! No! The city is not going to haul it off. You had insurance. You were supposed to take care of that cost yourself.”
The mayor noted that she paid about three times what it should have cost for the job. He stated the debris was piled up by the contractor and hauled away on Sunday. Although it is not known where the debris was dumped, the mayor said he suspects it was probably taken to the staging area at the water tower, because the ground was too wet at that time to dump it at the city’s sandpit located behind the FedEx building. According to Washburn, the dump sites received permits from the Tennessee, Department of Environment and Conservation, which is Tennessee’s equivalent of the EPA.
Washburn explained there are only two categories of debris – construction debris and vegetative debris. FEMA will pay 90 percent of the cost for removing the construction debris it approves, which FEMA estimates is approximately 220,000 cubic yards. The city is responsible for hauling away all of the vegetative debris, which it will accomplish by using its grapple truck.
Klutts asked if every person was informed that if they pushed the debris from their demolished houses to the road, it would not be picked up.
“Not every person was told that,” Washburn said. He stated there was a volunteer who was demolishing houses that told people it was okay to push the debris to the curb. He did an excellent job, and was not charging property owners anything, and there were many more like that.
“There was a lot of conflicting information,” Washburn said. “Tommy Wilson (a volunteer) had one set of information. We had a different set of information. And, if you ask somebody else at FEMA, they’ll give you a different answer. So, if that’s being inept, I guess I’m being inept, because I acted on the best information available. From the very beginning, we started telling people, if they had insurance and they tore their house down, they had to haul it off as well. That’s what I did. I tore my house down and paid to have it hauled it to a landfill. I paid a bid rate – no special favors as mayor.”
“That’s something we need to get the Integrity Group involved in, because sometimes, even FEMA people don’t have the right answer,” Washburn said.
The board hired the Integrity Group from Tallahassee, Florida, to operate as a consulting firm to the City of Dresden for public assistance and cleanup of the city. The job involves overseeing FEMA field work, gathering and submitting the necessary paperwork for expense reimbursement, researching and applying for grants to assist in the rebuilding process, ensuring the City of Dresden and business owners receive the maximum amount of FEMA funding and any other tasks the City of Dresden deems necessary. The charge for this service will be paid for out of city funds initially, but would be submitted for reimbursement through the administrative costs built into the FEMA grants.
Klutts stated the board could not vote on anything that’s not on the agenda. She said the June board meeting would be the proper time to address the issues being discussed.
Moore said, “I don’t know what the protocol is, but I think we need to get back to the business at hand. I don’t know how we’re going to handle this other stuff, but I know FEMA’s clock is ticking on us and we need to keep that in mind. Whenever the time runs out – I’m sorry – and that’s what they’re going to tell you. I’d like to change the subject and get with what this meeting is about.”
At this point, the focus of the meeting shifted to discussing hiring a disaster debris removal inspector and terminating the city’s building inspector. (See article, “Dresden Board Hires Debris Removal Inspector, Fires Building Inspector” in this week’s edition.)