Fort Worth assisted-living center needs new roof

FORT WORTH -- The cash-strapped assisted-living center that's under intense scrutiny by state and federal officials has another problem: it's in dire need of a new roof.

The owner of Westchester Plaza, WGH Heritage Inc., says its insurance carrier has refused to pay for an estimated $1.4 million in roof repairs the 11-story structure needs because of storm damage. Westchester, located on Summit Avenue near downtown, is the state's largest center of its kind for the mentally ill, elderly and infirm. Earlier this year, it defaulted on bond payments.

"This is a very large facility and a lot of people call that home and it's important that their well-being is taken care of," said Jean Nevin, an attorney with Merlin Law Group, a Tampa, Fla.-based law firm, which is representing the facility's owners in its property damage claim. "We want people to know that the owner really is doing everything he can to ensure that the repair is timely done."

Over the last several weeks, WGH Heritage President Doug Sweeney was forced to evacuate residents from the building's top floors and move them to other locations, Nevin said. WGH Heritage is hoping to secure financing to make the repairs, and the nonprofit will likely file suit against its insurer on the $1.4 million claim in the next week or so, she said. The suit could take up to a year to settle, she said.

"Because the clientele that resides there has a variety of health issues and a very compromised immune system ... Mr. Sweeney has been so concerned about it," Nevin said.

In August, some Westchester residents called the Star-Telegram to complain about flooding on the top floor. Some said they did not want to disclose their names for fear of retribution. Residents said the roof leaks were significant and said they were provided little or no assistance in the move from top-floor apartments.

"I've been told by many people they moved out because it was leaking so bad, the water was coming through," resident Victoria Gotich said.

After receiving calls, the Star-Telegram notified the city's code compliance department, and a city inspector was promptly dispatched to the facility.

"He did confirm some damage done to the roof," said Stephanie Martinez, a superintendent with the Fort Worth code compliance department.

A copy of the inspector's report obtained by the Star-Telegram under the Texas Public Information Act stated that the inspector spoke to one of Westchester's owners, Jeff Bryant, and was told that the owners had worked "everything out with the insurance company to replace the roof, a contractor has been located and the company will pull all permits. The plan is to start by next week."

The $1.4 million estimate for the repair work was compiled by a set of experts hired by Nevin's firm to assess the damage including a general contractor and roofing expert and an architect/engineer who specializes in weather patterns, Nevin said.

The damage occurred during windstorms on April 23, 2011, and June 6, 2012, Nevin said. The roof has various components, and the cost of the flat roof alone is more than $460,000, estimates show.

Yet another crisis

"This is very substantial damage," she said.

Westchester's carrier, Hartford Insurance Company, could not be reached for comment.

The damaged roof is yet another crisis for the facility, which was purchased in 2008 by WGH Heritage using tax-exempt municipal conduit bonds issued by Tarrant County.

However, the county has no responsibility for fixing the roof or addressing any financial problems because conduit issuers have no liability in the bond deals.

In April, WGH Heritage defaulted on payments on $20 million in bonds used to buy the facility, and hasn't paid up for months, records show.

Owners told the Star-Telegram in July that the bonds could be refinanced with help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If a bond refinancing is not approved, Westchester may be subject to expanded federal oversight.

Owners also have had to grapple with a slew of health and safety violations discovered by inspectors with the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. Allegations included complaints that the facility has a dire lack of staff and that residents were being given the wrong medications. Some inspectors linked some of the deaths at the facility to the lack of staffing. Westchester officials have said they would file an administrative appeal against the state.

State inspectors have also identified two instances of "imminent threat," or high-alarm situations that would impair the safety or health of residents. State officials are expected to release the findings of one of those "IT" investigations this week, spokeswoman Cecilia Cavuto told the Star-Telegram in an e-mail.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705