Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Detroit Land Bank director terminated

Posted By on Tue, Oct 13, 2015 at 1:50 PM

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Kevin Simowski, the executive director of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, was terminated Monday. 

While Mayor Mike Duggan is not saying what prompted the firing, the news comes on the heels of a WJBK-TV report by Charlie LeDuff that criticized the city's blight removal efforts, a system overseen by the Detroit Land Bank. According to LeDuff, the records and numbers associated with the city's demolition process "don't add up." 

Following the announcement of Simowski's departure from the organization, Mayor Duggan spoke with Detroit City Council, where he tried to assuage fears of mismanagement, saying he felt confident in the organization's demolition efforts. Mayor Duggan also addressed questions LeDuff raised about the rising costs associated with razing a building. According to Duggan, the cost of demolition has increased from $14,000 to $16,000 since 2014 largely because of new environmental standards. 

“We knew doing it would drive up the cost,” Duggan told the council, according to The Detroit News. “We thought protecting the families in the neighborhoods would be worth the higher cost.”

Following the LeDuff spot, Detroit City Council has called for an audit of the Detroit Building Authority and land bank’s demolition activities. It is unclear at this point if it will go forward. 

The Land Bank, which oversees the demolition of blighted buildings and auctioning of abandoned and foreclosed homes, was created in 2008; however, it wasn't until 2014, when Mayor Mike Duggan took office that its influence in the city surged. That year, the organization, which is in charge of deciding which buildings to demolish, received an influx in federal dollars from the the "Hardest Hit" fund. While the money was originally earmarked to help families hit by the economic and housing crisis — a portion of the $498.6 million grant was re-appropriated to the Detroit Land Bank for demolitions. Prior to the grant, the city was razing between 1,000 to 2,000 buildings a year. After gaining access to the funds, demolitions nearly doubled in the city with 3,500 buildings being razed in 2014.

The change in leadership and recent spotlight, is coming at a financially difficult time for the Land Bank, which expanded its staff to nearly 100 people in the past year and half. In February Mayor Duggan announced that federal funding for blight removal would likely only last through the summer, leaving an estimated 90 percent of the city's blighted buildings still standing. 

With Simowski leaving, principal director Carrie Lewand-Monroe will take over the executive director's duties. Turnover appears to be high for the position; prior to Simowski, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's former chief of staff Richard Wiener served as the director for 10 months before resigning in November. 

Simowski, who acted as general counsel for the organization before becoming its executive director, was directly over Deputy General Counsel Kim Homan, who was terminated in July. WXYZ reports that paperwork from Homan's termination indicates that the parting was involuntary and she received a $24,231 severance check when she left. 

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