Federal cuts could shrink high-rise security

Despite crime and terrorism fears, Horn public-housing complex may have fewer private guards

Fred Markus, president of the Charles Horn Terrace Residents Council, is bracing for a fight to keep private security guards during the daytime shift in his public high rise -- something he believes is critical for building safety.

At a time when Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) officials have told the federal government that some of its high-rise buildings are possible terrorist targets, the feds eliminated a key security grant, forcing local cuts. The MPHA's new budget goes into effect Oct. 1, and one draft option cuts $533,000 from its citywide $2.1 million Burns Security contract.

For Horn Terrace -- two senior high-rise buildings at 115 W. 31st St. and 3110 Blaisdell Ave. S. -- it would mean eliminating the 8 a.m.-4 p.m. security shift, saving $54,500 under the plan. They now have security guards seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

The plan also would save $13,600 by reducing security at neighboring Horn Tower, 3121 Pillsbury Ave. S., a building for younger, disabled people, by eliminating security from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. It now has guards 4 p.m.-4 a.m.

The proposed cuts come less than a year after Minneapolis police officer Melissa Schmidt was murdered in a Horn complex restroom.

Markus asks, "With no secure way to track activity within the complex, how long do you suppose it will take before unsavory characters realize how readily illicit operations can be hidden from public view, how easily elderly and disabled tenants and newly arrived immigrants can be intimidated into silence?"

The three buildings at Horn Terrace and Horn Tower have roughly 166 units each, Markus said.

Tom Streitz, MPHA's deputy executive director, said he believed the authority could make changes without compromising security -- but has no choice but to reduce costs. Streitz said the plans are in the discussion phase, and Executive Director Cora McCorvey would take recommendations to residents for comment.

Horn of the dilemma

The city housing authority runs 40 high-rises with more than 4,800 apartments, its Web site said.

Its operating budget is roughly $31 million a year, Streitz said. It gets roughly $17 million from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), $12 million in rent and $1.6 million from city tax and Community Development Block Grant money.

HUD is going to cut MPHA's operating subsidy by 10 percent or roughly $1.7 million, 5 percent of its total budget, he said. HUD also told MPHA it owed an added $1.7 million because HUD overpaid it for utility cost estimates.

Its insurance premiums also increased $500,000, the bulk coming from a four-fold property insurance increase from $124,000 a year to $530,000 a year, MPHA staff said, the fallout of 9/11 attacks and the increased risk perceived for tall buildings.

The housing authority has a hiring freeze and has banned outstate travel and training costs.

From a security standpoint, the biggest hit came from HUD's decision to eliminate the Public Housing Drug Elimination Program this year, Streitz said. It provided $1.4 million, or more than 40 percent of the agency's $3 million-plus security budget.

"It's gone; it's vanished," Streitz said.

In addition to the $2.1 million Burns Security contract, the authority's security costs include:

  • $1 million to the city of Minneapolis to pay for police officers -- seven during the day and six at night -- to patrol and investigate;

  • $175,000 to Project Lookout, resident-led security patrols;

  • Free rent for up to 15 police officers who live in high-rise units in return for eight hours of work, including building patrol.

    The housing authority has used the city's $1.6 million for security, Streitz said. Even if it uses all of the city money to pay for Burns guards, it still is $500,000 short of its $2.1 million contract, he said.

    The future of the police patrols is uncertain, Streitz said. The housing authority would talk to the city about public-housing policing and has guaranteed it would honor its current police contract. It runs out Dec. 31.

    The housing police team began in the mid-1990s, said Mac Walton, MPHA's security manager. "We will continue to have that relationship in some form," he said. "There might be a slight reduction in staff."

    Other options

    Markus wants the housing authority to take the $1.5 million it has earmarked for kitchen upgrades at the complex and put it to security; Streitz said it's a non-starter -- the MPHA can't use capital money for operating costs.

    Markus is circulating petitions to keep the guards; by early May he had 150 signatures, he said.

    "We believe there is no effective substitute for a trained security guard stationed at the front desk at all times: To record picture IDs and destinations; To keep unauthorized persons from barging in; To enforce the trespass list; To monitor live images from the security cameras," the petition reads.

    Streitz and Walton said residents have other resources nearby.

    The Horn Towers and Horn Terrace complex houses MPHA's South Area Office and has at least 10 staff on site during the day -- including a manager, supervisors and maintenance workers, as well as people from Volunteers of America, Streitz said.

    Walton said the buildings are only a block away from the Minneapolis Police Department's 5th Precinct's headquarters building, 3101 Nicollet Ave. S.

    Residents are key to building security and would need to be more involved, he said.

    "We will all have to step up and do more," Walton said. "We will work with resident councils to make sure that happens."

    Markus said the complex had problems with drugs and crime in the 1990s, before MPHA hired the security guards. Walton agrees but said that an $8 million renovation in 1997 addressed a number of security problems, such as an underground tunnel, and made the complex a safer place.

    Streitz and Walton are both writing grants to raise more security money, they said. Streitz recently mailed a request to Congressman Martin Sabo (D-Minneapolis) for a $2.8 million Homeland Security grant. It would pay for new state-of-the-art security and access control systems.

    The grant also would pay for improved tenant screening, "including screening of the hundreds or even thousands of applicants who are international refugees for which there are no verifiable criminal histories," the letter said.

    The grant's summary raises more alarming refugee-related safety concerns.

    "Given the wide variety of individuals who occupy these facilities, it is very possible that the facilities may be targeted by terrorists who view our residents as having 'sided' with the United States against their country of origin," it said.