By Brandon OConnorApril 4, 2019
Colonel Cecil Marson, West Point Garrison commander, is fully aware of the stakes at hand. When it comes to the housing at West Point and the more than 700 occupied residences, it is his job to make sure the families are living in safe, clean and habitable homes.
"At the end of the day, if there are any questions about where the buck stops on housing, it is me," Marson said during a town hall in February. "I know I will be judged on my tenure here at West Point on how I fix your housing issues. It is pretty simple to me. I have to figure it out, and I have to get it fixed."
In the past month, the Garrison has hosted multiple town halls, leadership has stepped foot in every home on post, including some visits by Marson and Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, U.S. Military Academy superintendent, and staffing has been reassigned to make sure the housing issues are being attacked head-on.
Ranging from a backlog of smaller work orders like broken doorknobs to houses with substantial issues such as mold, Marson said it is a 24/7 process between his staff and the staff at Balfour Beatty Communities, the private contractor who manages the housing on post, to make sure residents' concerns are addressed.
Step one of a process has been to work toward hiring four new people for the government housing office. In the meantime, staff has been reassigned from other departments to the housing office to serve as stopgaps. So far, personnel from the Directorate of Public Works, the auditor's office and the Logistics Readiness Center have been placed in the housing office.
They have been divided into three teams, along with the full-time staff in the office, to go through every part of the housing on post and rectify issues. One team is working on quality assurance and quality control within the work order backlog. The second team is looking at the system as a whole to find where the breakdowns are. That includes the work order system, staffing levels, finances and partner incentive bonuses, which are suspended. The third team is looking at the barracks, both for cadets and enlisted Soldiers.
The four new staff members will include a housing manager and three people whose primary job will be to inspect housing and help with quality assistance and quality control. The partner has also added a resident engagement specialist who has already started.
"When the original agreements were signed, there were a certain number of people assigned to all the housing offices to fill all these critical roles to do the oversite," Marson said. "Based on restructuring and personnel reductions, it has been a gradual descent down a hill where less and less oversite was given, and we got to where we are today. Unfortunately, it took this critical mass to happen, but at the end of the day the positive of it is everyone is aware, and now we are tackling these issues. We are going to get after it and get back to a solid footing on housing."
To help identify immediate quality issues within the houses, West Point, and other posts throughout the armed forces, have partnered with Adaptiv to do third-party inspections of homes with environmental concerns and give non-biased assessments of whether there is an issue and what needs to be done to remedy it.
BBC has also begun the process of having a third-party contractor inspect all of the housing HVAC systems on post. The inspections started Monday in the vacant houses as a test and will roll out across post in the next six to nine months with priority being given to residents with prior complaints. Water lead testing is also available on a case-by-case basis with work being done at the Army level to assess the ability to do further testing.
"Fortunately to date West Point has had zero reports of elevated blood levels and the Garrison is working closely with Keller Army Community Hospital to make sure testing is available for concerned residents," Marson said. "That said, we did do some testing, and we did find some faucets in some homes on some of their sinks that did have some elevated levels of lead. We have gone in to start to mitigate those."
The biggest issue, though, is in the work order system, Marson said. Part of the problem is the system is backlogged because there are homes with significant problems that are necessitating the use of a lot of the available resources. Marson estimated there are between 20 and 30 homes with significant issues including plumbing, water issues or mold that have to be rectified and include a full case management style approach juggling multiple parties and contractors.
The work order issues have also been exasperated because of problems with the actual system of putting in, tracking and closing work orders. A first step toward rectifying those issues went live Monday with the rolling out of BBC's Rental Café app, which will allow residents to place, track and archive work orders. West Point is the first of BBC's armed forces locations to have the app rollout to residents.
"It has been a very long, systemic, problematic challenge for the partner," Marson said of the work order issues. "It should be very transparent to the resident. It is now a way all of us can see when the work is being done, when the work order is being closed and we can archive everything. It is a great system. We need to encourage more residents to use it and test the system."
Transparent has been a key term for Marson throughout this process. Whether it is in the work order process, or more importantly in the results from environmental inspections, Marson said he wants to make sure residents are able to trust the information they are being given.
To help with transparency and to make sure West Point residents have advocates working in their best interests, Marson has taken steps to physically separate the workspaces of the government housing office and BBC. The move is the first of a series of steps that will end with the government housing office falling back under DPW.
"In the past, BBC properties was inside the government housing office. There were reasons for that. Through this process, we have found that is not the best way to do it," Marson said. "There are two entities here. You have the government housing office, which is the advocate for the residents. The residents need to have confidence that there is an entity they can go to, speak freely and get their questions resolved."
With issues so widespread throughout the system, Marson said it could take up to a year to get everything back to moving smoothly. In that time, he asked residents to be patient and work with them to solve the issues they are facing.
"If (residents) have issues, they've got to let us know ... These things are challenging, and a lot of focus is going to help tackle these issues," Marson said. "The residents are going to have to be patient with us and help us to make sure we get to where we need to go. We'll do it. Our goal is to give them safe, acceptable housing and that's what we're working toward."