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Sewage problem fixable, company told manager

Four subsidized housing complexes with serious sewage overflow could be repaired, according to a Tampa plumbing contractor who used to do sewage cleanup work for the complexes. Ralph Whitley, vice president and master plumber for Redi-Rooter Inc., said his company warned U.S. Shelter Corp. repeatedly that plumbing pipes at several of the Tampa complexes were badly positioned, which prevented sewage from flowing properly and sometimes caused human waste to pile up on the grounds.

During the weekend, residents at U.S. Shelter Corp.'s Columbus Court complex at Columbus Drive and Rome Avenue experienced streams of sewage flowing from their walkways to their front doors.

Several residents said they have complained about the problem for years to no avail.

"Sometimes they would call us everyday, sometimes twice a day," said Tom Censullo, president of Redi-Rooter.

Whitley said he complained to several federal and county agencies on Tuesday. Hope Keating, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Jacksonville, said that HUD is looking into the matter.

Redi-Rooter had given the management company estimates showing what work was needed to correct the problem for several years before 1988, when Redi-Rooter stopped working for the management company. One such document, dated April 23, 1986, warns the company that sewage spills pose a health hazard and could result in lawsuits.

The estimates date to 1985, when Censullo purchased Tampa-based Redi-Rooter, which is primarily a sewer and drain cleaning business. Censullo said that records kept by his company's previous owners indicate that the problem has existed since at least 1982.

U.S. Shelter manages four federally subsidized complexes in Tampa: Columbus Court, Johnson Court and Kenneth Court at E 43rd Street and Hillsborough Avenue and Central Court at 2510 Central Ave.

The four are owned by limited partnerships with mailing addresses in Georgia and South Carolina. U.S. Shelter, based in Greenville, S.C., is involved in all four partnerships, according to an HUD office in Jacksonville.

On Monday, U.S. Shelter spokesmen said that the system fails about three times a year, and that tenants cause the problem by stuffing diapers, clothes, rags, grease and other improper substances into the system.

Tuesday, Brian May, a U.S. Shelter manager in Clearwater, acknowledged that all four buildings have occasional plumbing problems. He blamed the tenants.

"They live filthy," he said.

May said he was unaware of any estimates that Redi-Rooter had provided to correct the plumbing problems.

Charles Epps, a corporate spokesman for U.S. Shelter in Greenville, said the fact that Redi-Rooter drew up the estimates does not indicate a structural problem. "That's like asking a surgeon if you need surgery," he said.

May said that he stopped doing business with Redi-Rooter in 1988 after a dispute over billing.

Redi-Rooter acknowledged a billing dispute, but Whitley said his company, not U.S. Shelter, severed the relationship.

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