By Ron Leir
One elderly township resident claims she’s paid out thousands of dollars in construction bills with little to show for it.
Another senior complained that an alarm company renewed his contract without asking and, adding insult to injury, raised the price.
Two other residents in their 80s have declared bankruptcy and have nowhere to turn for help.
These and many more issues confronting local seniors have prompted Public Affairs Commissioner Steven Rogers to create another new unit of government within his department, this one called the Office of Advocacy and Assistance for Senior Citizens.
It was launched Jan. 15 and Rogers has named retired Nutley Police Det. Sgt. Robert DeBello as a deputy director in charge of the new bureau. DeBello will serve as a volunteer in the job, Rogers said.
Last year, Rogers created a Bureau of Military and Veterans Affairs to deal with issues affecting local servicemen and women and assigned Marine veteran Courtney Johnson and Army veteran Dan Jacoby to oversee it, also as unpaid volunteers.
Now Rogers says he’s focusing “on providing vital services to our senior citizens – services that are designed to protect them from unscrupulous business people, fraud and services that will provide them with assistance in dealing with a broad spectrum of issues. … They need a local advocate to speak up for them and to prevent them from becoming the victim of criminal elements, [and from] corporate and government [indifference].”
The resident reportedly victimized by a contractor told The Observer she hired the company last March to do general construction work on a restaurant, warehouse and an apartment after learning that the firm has done a lot of work in the township.
After providing a hefty downpayment, the project seemed to be moving along but then the contractor began pressing her for more money – cash – to continue the work. She continued to pay him through October. “After that, I didn’t see him for six weeks,” the resident told The Observer. When he returned, the contractor asked her to help buy construction materials. At this point, she said, much of the work remains largely incomplete and, in her view, badly executed. She says she’s paid him more than $80,000.
“A few weeks ago,” Rogers said, “[the resident] walked into my office on a Saturday morning and showed me a credit card receipt with about $4,000 in building materials that was purchased by the contractor using her MasterCard. I turned the matter over to the New Jersey State Attorney General’s office.”
Rogers asked The Observer to keep the name of the resident and contractor confidential at this time. “We contacted the contractor and he’s going to come in to discuss the matter. We’re going to try to resolve it.”
As for the gripe about the alarm company, Rogers said his office advised the company it had violated state regulations dealing with contract renewals and, as a result, the firm voided the agreement.
In another case, Rogers said a World War II veteran whose basement had been flooded and left with mold on the walls called around to different contractors for prices to remedy the situation. “Contractors were quoting him prices anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000,” Rogers said. “Well, we looked into it and found that the cost for these type of jobs should be no more than $200 to $300.”
His office is also trying to help two desperate seniors faced with the prospect of being thrown out of their homes after being unable to pay what Rogers characterized as exorbitant fees on bank loans. Neither can afford a lawyer. Rogers said he tried reaching out to a bank officer in their behalf but ended up dealing with recorded messages. “I was transferred to 10 to 15 different voice mails,” he said.
Some seniors are so stressed out dealing with these type of financial pressures they need medical help, therapy or counseling. In some cases, the strain is so great that it’s threatening to destroy marriages. “I know of some couples together 60 years who are ready to split up because they’re fighting over these issues,” Rogers said.
“What I’m seeing is a reflection of a lack of compassion by government and the private sector for these good people who have served their country and their community,” Rogers said. “But Nutley does care about them.”
And Rogers said that seniors can look to DeBello and himself to respond. “When Bob and I worked together in the Detective Bureau, they called us the ‘Dynamic Duo,’ ’’ Rogers quipped.
DeBello, who put in 25 years with the Nutley Police Department before retiring in 1996, said he was happy to take on his new assignment “because I wanted to give back to the community where I was born and raised. This community has been good to me and I have the time now where I can do this.”
To make seniors – and others – more aware of the potential traps targeted for them by unscrupulous vendors, Rogers said his office will be putting together a consumer affairs education program for the community this spring.
“We have an obligation to help them,” he said.