Part 2: Assisted-living facility made possible by tax-exempt bonds fell into 'anarchy'

Second of four parts

FORT WORTH -- A singing trio of brothers -- known as McDuff -- arrived in Fort Worth in the late 1990s with high hopes of creating assisted-living centers for some of the city's most vulnerable residents.

With tens of millions of dollars in tax-exempt bonds issued by Tarrant County in 1998, the McDuffs, who were Baptist ministers, opened Westchester Retirement and sister facilities. "The preachers believed they were doing good," said Jeff Bryant, of a property management firm.

Within two years, the bonds defaulted.

Today, the vocal evangelists John, Roger and Colman are gone, Westchester has a new owner, and conditions, at a slow and steady crumble for years, have hit rock bottom, even though Tarrant County, through one of its public corporations, issued more bonds to try to salvage the property.

"It's been anarchy," said Bryant, president of Phoenix Health Resources, which eventually took over for the McDuffs and still manages Westchester today.

The project is one example of the harm that can come when difficult, high-risk municipal bond projects fail. Assisted-living centers are among the riskiest ventures, according to bond experts.

Theft, burglary, disturbances and assaults have plagued the facility, police reports show. Some residents said they don't want to leave their rooms for fear of having their belongings stolen or being attacked because of widespread lack of supervision. Resident Gary Coleman, 41, who has scoliosis, said that after numerous break-ins at his apartment, he asked management for a deadbolt lock but was turned down.

Callous, belligerent and unqualified staff members put patients' lives at risk by missing medications or administering the wrong ones, cursed at residents and left them in filthy rooms, according to reports by investigators for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

Narcotics could not be accounted for, and some staff members were suspected of diverting them.

A 2009 inspection found the place infested with roaches. Inspectors noted broken doors, leaking ceilings, falling plaster and fire hazards. Residents say they've encountered feces in the elevators and hallways and barefoot residents in the dining rooms in desperate need of bathing.

"There are some people here who are wild-looking, and, believe me, it would have to be pretty bad for me to be scared of them," said a former psychiatric nurse who became a resident in June. She asked not to be identified because of concern for her safety.

New owners acknowledge that problems have been serious. Westchester has faced being shuttered, they said. Crises have resulted from financial constraints, "archaic" medication management tools and communication issues. But even on a "shoestring budget," they say, they are determined to turn things around.

"We have a place we have to rescue," said Bryant, who is now also an owner.

If the facility were shuttered, many residents would have no place to go, said Doug Sweeney, president of WGH Heritage, the nonprofit that now owns it. "Many of these people would be living under a bridge if it wasn't for this place," he said. "It's this place or no place. It's here or the street."

Downward spiral

Westchester has had a troubled history, records show.

The Summit Avenue complex was built in 1951 as a posh hotel, but by the 1990s it was operating as an apartment complex. In 1997, the complex was renovated for personal-care units, according to bond documents.

Tarrant County, through its Health Facilities Development Corp., initially issued bonds for acquiring Westchester and two other Fort Worth personal-care facilities, as well as for building a 60-bed skilled-nursing facility.

Tarrant also issued $12.6 million for other McDuff nursing facilities, known as Harvest Communities, in South Texas.

But $1.6 million earmarked for the Fort Worth projects was somehow diverted to a project in the Houston area. By 2000, the projects were in default. It was reported that one that cost about $2.9 million was for sale for $100,000, with no buyers.

Among the issues from the start, Bryant said, was that the gospel-singing brothers lacked experience running assisted-living centers and had to rely on outside managers.

One had previously been barred from participating in federally funded projects after she misused funds at multifamily projects in Fort Worth, according to records of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Colman McDuff did not respond to a request for comment.

By 2008, the 300-bed facility was half-empty. Admissions dropped lower when the state's outsourced healthcare management program came to an abrupt halt, Sweeney said.

That year, Tarrant County Cultural Education Facilities Finance Corp. authorized the issue of up to $35 million in bonds so new owners could acquire Westchester and the two sister Fort Worth assisted-living centers and pay off obligations from the 1998 bonds.

Within a year, $4 million in unsecured bonds that the corporation issued were in default. And a reserve fund that was supposed to pay investors in case of default has apparently vanished.

The owners, struggling to break even, still have high hopes for the facility.

"We're going to get this place fixed from stem to stern," Bryant said. "It's a diamond being cut and polished to maximize its brilliance."

'Change the paradigm'

The 2008 bond agreement stipulated that owners would keep the facilities in reasonably safe condition and good repair. To some residents, improvements have been too slow in coming.

Most assisted-living residents need some help with their medications. Some suffer from cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis; others have Down syndrome or a mental disorder, such as schizophrenia. Some may be in the initial stages of Alzheimer's.

Some complain that their lives are at risk.

Myrtice Bohne, 76, said she requires assistance when she showers to make certain she doesn't fall. At times, she said, attendants disappear and she has to fend for herself.

Her medications have been confused on more than one occasion, she said. If she's not paying attention, she receives other residents' medications. "What if I'd been blind or had a mental incapacity? I would've taken some of those meds."

Sweeney said he has been made aware of reports of residents being treated rudely by staff and of attempted rapes. He said management is now hiring credentialed people. Disciplinary methods -- ways to handle aggressive residents or those with behavioral issues -- are being developed to ensure safety, Bryant said.

He said "rampant theft" has been addressed.

And new software is being rolled out to keep track of medications, in-room residents' services, dietary needs and other tasks. "We're creating this system that will allow us to spend less time shuffling papers and more time taking care of people," Bryant said.

The Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services is also helping. It is emerging with a new HMO program that should make things more cost-effective, Bryant said.

Occupancy is climbing to 75 to 80 percent, Bryant said.

"We're going to change the paradigm of this whole industry," Bryant said.

"The Westchester will transition into the technological age, and we're going to create for it a new image and a new reputation."

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

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