Resident volunteers are trying to fill gap left by a 59 percent cut in security guard hours in Minneapolis public housing high-rises.
At 4 a.m. last Thursday, a security guard at a downtown Minneapolis public housing high-rise wrapped up his 10-hour shift, rose from his desk in the lobby, and handed over the building keys to John Hill, 49, a resident who had come downstairs to take over his duties.
At 4:25 a.m., JoAnn Montgomery, 64, her eyelids still heavy from sleep, got off the elevator, using her walker, and joined Hill behind the desk for the three-hour shift she volunteers for seven days a week.
Hill and Montgomery are among some 200 public housing resident volunteers who have supplanted many of the guards at 30 public housing city high-rises as a result of a 59 percent cut in security guard hours ordered by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. The cuts, which began March 2, were instituted over the protest of 1,000 residents citywide who signed petitions.
Authority executive director Cora McCorvey said last week that crime is down in the high-rises and the $1.4 million security cut was necessary because of a "serious revenue shortfall," totaling $8 million from 2011 to 2012. The agency is still spending $1 million on security.
"We don't know if this cut [in security] is too deep," McCorvey said. "We have to figure out a way together to control our costs. We have a responsibility to residents and taxpayers. We can't guarantee this is the right strategy."
McCorvey praised the resident volunteers, members of a public housing neighborhood watch group, Project Lookout. But she insists they are not replacing the guards and weren't asked to do so. They are "more of a greeter. ... They are trained not to intervene," she said.
Told Thursday morning that McCorvey said the volunteers were not replacing the guards, Montgomery asked, "Then what are we doing?"
Her fellow Lookout volunteer, John Hill, laughed. "We're doing something," he said.
Volunteers do what they can
While Hill and Montgomery say their early morning shift often is uneventful, it had its moments Thursday. A ruckus at 4:15 a.m. in the first-floor TV room echoed through the 299-unit building, which has an atrium that rises 16 stories.
Hill walked over and told the men inside, "You've got to keep your voices down."
Two visitors, one of whom was slurring his words, was let in a back door by a tenant. Hill saw them on a camera. A few minutes later the visitors came to the front desk, showed ID cards and Montgomery signed them in. If they hadn't checked in, she would have filed a report and they could have been banned from the high-rise, she said.
Resident Christopher Looker, 47, passed the front desk while walking his dog, Kiki, and said it was unfortunate security was cut. "Their presence and uniform and air of authority make a big difference in what people may or may not do," he said. "It's a deterrent.
"A lot goes on around... and in the building. There are fights. There's drug dealing," he said. Volunteers, "do not intimidate anyone. I don't want to say they are unimportant. They are the community. But we need real security."
The Minneapolis Highrise Representative Council, a residents group, urged the authority to keep the guards, using reserve funds. But the agency said if it did, the reserves would be depleted in two years.
"The high-rises are relatively safe," says, John Stumme, a council organizer. "But sometimes the problems of the neighborhoods spill in."
When word spread of the guard rollback, there was panic among residents, he said. "There was also a strong sense of obligation to fill the vacancy and keep the coverage going."
Stumme organized Project Lookout in 1987. It expanded with federal funding, and today volunteers get T-shirts emblazoned with "Project Lookout" and two-way radios to report incidents. But Stumme worries volunteers will be unable to keep up the long hours.
"It puts more pressure on us," said Charles Turner, 56, a resident volunteer, who took a reporter on a 5 p.m. patrol of a public high-rise at 1707 3rd Av. S. Turner stopped at every door of the 21-story high-rise, sniffing for smoke or natural gas that a resident might have accidentally left on. "I've found drug paraphernalia, liquor bottles, quite a few people sleeping in the stairwells," he said.
Securitas, a security firm that contracts with the agency, laid off 30 guards, but 18 have since been reassigned to other accounts, the company says.
At 314 Hennepin Av., the only Minneapolis high-rise that had 24-hour security, guard service has been cut to 10 hours a day. Other buildings with part-time security had hours reduced or eliminated. In some cases, a single guard now rotates among several buildings.
The authority has struggled to cover its costs, McCorvey said. In April 2011, it discontinued a $700,000 appropriation for a six-member Minneapolis police team that worked on livability issues, including drug use in the high-rises.
Bright side: Crime down
One reason for security cuts is a decline in illegal activity, McCorvey said. That's partly due to the growing proportion of elderly residents in public housing, from 29 percent 20 years ago to 52 percent today.
She said the agency has also spent millions moving offices to the ground floors to be more visible, improving lighting, building fences and adding cameras and doors that open with key cards.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has cut public housing authorities nationwide this year. The $3.9 million cut to the Minneapolis agency reduced its full-time staff equivalent from 293 to 271.
The agency also failed to get $1.4 million from the city, which declined to levy a tax earmarked for security. The authority did not request the levy for 2010, but asked for it in 2011 and 2012 and was turned down, McCorvey said. She said Minneapolis was one of only a few cities that's levied funds for public housing.
John Stiles, Mayor R.T. Rybak's spokesman, said all city departments took cuts and the housing authority told the city it could more easily absorb the city's fund reduction.
The agency has paid Honeywell $200,000 for a security assessment and recommendations on cost savings and technological upgrades. The report is due in June. McCorvey said her agency is also tracking incidents and police reports at the high-rises.
"If the data tell us the guard level is too low, we are going to have to figure that out how to deal with that," she said. "We don't want to lose control of any of our properties. We had that experience many years ago, and we don't want that to happen again."
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224