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I-TEAM: 10 years later, we hear from the private company that provides housing on Fort Gordon

Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 5:27 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - For 10 years, we’ve uncovered problems with housing at Fort Gordon, some serious enough to land families on a national health registry.

And for 10 years, Balfour Beatty, the company in charge of housing on post, has denied our requests for an interview. That is, until now.

A lot is on the line here, and not just the health and safety of our military families.

That’s a price no one should have to pay, but there could be another cost: one that puts us all at risk.

It all started in 2011, when Kourtney Shelton, an Army wife living on post, has to rush her six-month-old daughter to the hospital after she stopped breathing.

It was a similar story for Michaela Hall, who had to rush her 2-year-old Tavoris to the ER in 2019.

“Shortness of breath. Scared me to death out of my sleep,” Hall said.

And the adults on post were also sick of being - sick.

“There was this, like, orange stuff, running down the walls,” Carol, a woman we spoke to in 2019 who wanted to remain anonymous, said.

For a decade, we’ve been talking to families living on Fort Gordon, collecting photos, combing medical records, but for the first time ever we’re hearing from the company behind it all.

We sat down with Rick Taylor and Fort Gordon Garrison Commander Colonel Shaw Pick to talk about what went wrong.

“How did we get here? How did we get to a point where it became a housing crisis?” I asked.

“Wow,” Colonel Pick said.

“There’s a saying you inspect what you expect, And, and I think that, you know, we weren’t doing that as thoroughly as we could have as the private sector entity in this arrangement,” Taylor said.

That entity, Balfour Beatty Communities, is a British company that owns and operates housing at more than 50 military installations, including Fort Gordon.

Rick Taylor is responsible for them all, so he was the one in the virtual hot seat at last month’s Congressional hearing.

He joined us from Pennsylvania, but he didn’t feel remote.

“Covering this for many years, it has always seemed like two islands: the military and BBC,” I said. “The mere fact that we’re doing this together today sends a very...strong message that y’all are working together.”

“I hope so,” Colonel Pick said. “You don’t get to choose, you know, your spouse in this marriage, we’re married, we’re in a marriage. And we got to be successful together because we will fail divided.”

Colonel Pick has been Fort Gordon’s Garrison Commander for 10 months, so he wasn’t here when the I-Team started uncovering problems that made it up the chain of command and even became national news.

“I saw your last piece with Greta Van Susteren, and great piece, right. And I was like, okay, so I focused on what’s different, right since then,” he said.

The I-Team found issues so serious that the Army classified them as life-health-safety. Things like electrical problems, mold moisture complaints and gas issues.

“So, we haven’t found an issue in a home that they are turning over for another resident that was life health, or safety in probably five months is my guess. That’s a huge improvement, right?” Pick said.

Taylor says another improvement since then was bringing in a 3rd party called SatisFacts to get feedback from families, instead of Balfour Beatty asking families about, well, Balfour Beatty.

“Therein lies, you know, the potential for manipulating information. So, we saw that as a weakness in our system,” Taylor explained.

Lawmakers in DC did too. The Government Accountability Office even called that data “unreliable,” but this change gives it more weight.

“Residents can give us, you know, honest feedback without any fear of retribution,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, Colonel Pick isn’t sugar coating things. 75 percent of the homes on post are considered legacy, which is just a nice way to call them old, and in some cases, not up to current housing codes.

“And this is where Fort Gordon’s, a bear trap, and what makes their job harder,” he said.

And more expensive.

Taylor tells the I-Team maintenance costs come out of the same account for new construction. Since Fort Gordon’s older homes are more expensive to maintain, they gobble up the dollars needed to build new ones.

Without new ones, the older homes get even older and cost even more.

“It’s not going to get any easier to maintain these homes. We have to put new construction on the ground,” Pick said.

Which will finally happen this summer. It’s the future site of Pine Tree Terrace, a brand-new neighborhood with 76 brand new homes and only the I-Team can show you the plans.

This is a rendering of what the 4-plexes will look like.

They will be two stories with four bedrooms, and two and a half baths, with a lot of upgrades and updates like enlarged garages with storage and a full laundry room.

There will also be single family homes with the same features and number of bedrooms -- only they are ADA compliant and fully wheelchair accessible.

Crews are also set to fully remodel homes in Maglin Terrace, stripping them down to their bones, knocking down walls, and basically starting all over with new plumbing, wiring, everything.

The plans also include adding a garage.

“That’s going to be I think, the first real example of how serious we are about trying to build right new communities on Fort Gordon. We need them,” Pick said.

So how can Fort Gordon get more new communities? Both the Army and Balfour Beatty hope investors see an opportunity.

“This is the center of the cyber universe for the Southeastern US. I want the lenders to go I want to lend them money build me 500 homes, right?” Pick said.

“We’ve been looking into housing issues here for 10 years, and we’ve asked many times to speak with someone with Balfour Beatty, and we’ve always been turned down,” I said.

“I think it’s a great question -- are we being more transparent than we have in the past? Perhaps, but I think that it’s, it’s good that we do because you’re seeing the type of improvements as a result of the level of communication that we’re having,” Taylor said.

That in itself feels like somewhat of a tactical victory because an open dialogue has been missing from this equation for so long, and not just with the I-Team.

Both Colonel Pick and Mr. Taylor admit the Army and Balfour Beatty weren’t doing enough talking. Not to each other, but especially to those living in military housing.

“How are your soldiers living? If you can’t answer that question, you’ve taken your eye off the ball,” Pick said.

“We were equally guilty for becoming complacent, and not looking at the things that we should have been looking at,” Taylor said.

Now, as Fort Gordon takes a big step forward with a new neighborhood this summer, Colonel Pick hopes that momentum continues.

“We make 21st-century cyber warriors here that are worth a lot on the outside, and if they go down the street to a unit and go to work and come home to a house and their family’s not happy or they feel it’s not quality or not safe, we are going to lose that soldier to Google. To Microsoft. To Amazon,” he said.

That, in turn, could affect national security, giving us all a vested interest in the success of this military housing partnership.

There is a fine line, though, between a military family’s privacy in their home, and leadership keeping a close eye on the condition of that home, so families need to speak up if something isn’t right.

Leaders say they can’t fix a problem if they don’t know about it.

Again, crews are set to break ground on the new Pine Tree Terrace this summer, and of course, we’ll take you there.

FOLLOW THE I-TEAM COVERAGE

Augusta 2019

Mold, bugs, and safety issues put spotlight on private company who provides housing on Fort Gordon

8 years after reports of mold at Ft. Gordon homes, we find the problems may still exist

September 2019

U.S. Army kept in the dark about issues at many private military housing complexes, employee says

Did poor housing at Fort Gordon make a resident sick?

We asked a simple question about Balfour Beatty complaints. Our answer only turned up more questions

October 2019

The Army is facing a housing crisis, documents show

November 2019

Problems at Fort Gordon’s military housing has Rep. Rick Allen’s attention

December 2019

GAO report shows much work to be done for private military housing

March 2020

New Tenant Bill of Rights could mean help for Fort Gordon families living in military housing

April 2020

Some companies still fail to address safety issues in military housing

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