The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee opened hearings today into the case of 21 mentally disabled men living in a bunkhouse in Atalissa. The Texas company that ran the bunkhouse paid rent to the eastern Iowa city of Atalissa, which owns the 105-year-old building.
Long-time Atalissa City Council member Angie Dickey said she didn’t realize the men were living in a fire hazard until she heard the story in the news. “Believe me, if they were mistreated or something was going on with them, there are a lot of people in town who would be very upset about it and would want to make sure that nothing bad was happening to them,” Dickey said.
According to Dickey, Atalissa lacks the resources to inspect the building on a regular basis. “We are obviously a small town. We have three part time employees, two part-time police officers and we have a part time clerk. When it snows in our town either the mayor or a council person is the one that goes out in a snow plow and cleans up our streets,” Dickey told legislators, “so we do not have anything like building code inspector, or a housing inspector, or anything like that.”
Dickey said Henry’s Turkey Service, the firm renting the old schoolhouse in Atalissa, had promised to replace the broken boiler with baseboard heat, but Dickey admitted city officials never checked to make sure that happened. Space heaters were providing the only heat in the building.
Dennis Hepker, another member of the Atalissa City Council, told legislators he once called the Department of Human Services to ask about the situation, but Hepker said he was told without proof of abuse, the agency didn’t have time to investigate. Hepker said he never felt the men were being mistreated, so he dropped the issue. “You can tell by a person’s dress and everything about where they live and these guys were always well dressed and clean and polite. There was no evidence they were living someplace nasty,” he said. “Maybe we should have looked a little bit harder, but this had been going on all our lives.”
After the Atalissa city council members spoke several legislators on the committee expressed their appreciation for small town life and declined to lay any blame at city officials’ feet. Representative Vicki Lensing, a Democrat from Iowa City, was among them. “Your remarks show your concern for these gentlemen and that they have been part of your lives,” Lensing said. “I don’t think anyone wants to cast blame on anything you’ve done and that shows through, so thank you for being here.”
That prompted Representative Wayne Ford, a Democrat from Des Moines, to weigh in, charging that if a similar bunkhouse were discovered in a city, heads would roll. “There’s blood on everybody’s hands, on everybody. Anybody who try to think there’s not blood on their hands is not dealing right,” Ford said. “To say well somebody didn’t get a phone call or I don’t know who I made the phone call to or we don’t have inspections cause we ain’t got no money — I mean that’s just too naive.”
The Government Oversight Committee meeting began with testimony from the Department of Human services which responded to a call about the bunkhouse just over a week ago. Vern Armstrong, a D.H.S. administrator, said within 48 hours the fire marshall had ruled the building unsafe and his staff immediately went to work to find the 21 mentally retarded men a new home. “Our staff, in my opinion, responded quite quickly on this. To have 38 workers respond on a weekend is pretty amazing. They all volunteered to do it,” Armstrong said. “We provided 24/7 supervision for these gentlemen while they were in the hotel and so that’s how we’ve responded.”
The Government Oversight Committee will reconvene on Thursday to question the Department of Inspections and Appeals about complaints it received about the Atalissa bunkhouse earlier in the decade.