HOPE Board Is Split

Published 3:50 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2013

FARMVILLE – A divided HOPE Community Services, Inc. board of directors met Monday without voting to voluntarily rescind the organization's designation as a community action agency.

The board, in fact, is split on the issue.

HOPE's executive committee had previously voted its recommendation to voluntarily give up the designation.

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HOPE's executive director, Dr. Kitty Smith, believes that willingly relinquishing community action agency status is in the best interest of the residents in its six-county service area.

And in a letter the Virginia Department of Social Services strongly recommends that the HOPE board rescind that status.

The failure of the HOPE board to do so means the Virginia Department of Social Services will, according to the letter from the state, take matters into its own hands to rescind the community action agency status.

But members of the HOPE board who want to fight losing the designation believe the agency can successfully do so, keying on the fact that various grant funds have been suspended, rather than terminated, and that the fight can be won without causing additional hardship to those who have depended on HOPE for services.

“It's divided,” Dr. Smith said of HOPE's board of directors on Monday. “It's divided.”

The state has already stopped processing community service block grant funding invoices and without HOPE's voluntarily relinquishment residents in Buckingham, Cumberland, Prince Edward, Farmville, and three other counties face a delay of services, the state warns.

“The Virginia Department of Social Services still strongly recommends that the Board follow through on this action,” Fran Inge, Director of the Office of Volunteer and Community Services, with the Virginia Department of Social Services, wrote in a June 14 letter to HOPE. “This is a decision that must be made by the HOPE Board of Directors. While we recognize this is a hard decision for the Board, it is a decision that will expeditiously get services back to the citizens of your community. The most critical part of this discussion needs to center around whether or not the citizens are getting the services they need.”

Inge adds, “while we remain confident that the HOPE Board of Directors will make the right decision and voluntarily rescind their designation as a community action agency, please know that within the next week an official letter will come from the Virginia Department of Social Services that will formally start the process to rescind HOPE's designation as a community action agency for cause. This will be a lengthy process delaying the provision of desperately needed services to the citizens of your service area. Should the Board vote to voluntarily…rescind their designation, the formal process will stop and we can immediately begin addressing service delivery.”

The state's decision to suspend all funding, explains Inge in the June 14 letter, is due to the fact the Virginia Department of Social Services “remains gravely concerned with the governance and financial viability of HOPE Community Services.”

Inge writes, “both the HOPE Board of Directors and VDSS has a fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of public funds; therefore, looking at multiple breaches of your contract, we are suspending all funds. Major issues which led to this decision include: an unacceptable A-133 audit, no proof of current liability insurance, allegations of fiscal mismanagement, Board minutes are not current, as required. Of most concern is our lack of confidence that services are being delivered to the residents of your community.”

If HOPE's board of directors were to voluntarily rescind the community action agency status the state would apparently seek to use grant funds to provide services to residents in HOPE's service area through community action agencies elsewhere in the central Virginia region.

Inge was contacted Tuesday morning by The Herald for the most up-to-date state perspective but respectfully and politely said state media protocols require questions to be placed to her through a public affairs officer. The replies to those questions were not received in time to meet the deadline for today's issue of the newspaper.

A decision to accept the state's offer and voluntarily rescind the community action agency status would benefit area residents and allow HOPE to shape its future, according to executive director Smith.

“Let me explain why this is important. If we rescind it and we don't challenge the relinquishing of the grant, they can immediately divide the area up so that all of the counties are still receiving services from area community action agencies, like Lynchburg, in South Boston, in Richmond. It can be done quickly,” Dr. Smith told The Herald during a Friday interview.

“If we decide to appeal, to fight it, or something like that,” she continued, “all funding stops and there will be no service for as long as six months because, as long as we're fighting, the designation of community action agency has not been officially taken from HOPE, which means that other community action agencies would not be able to serve the residents of the area.

“I think that if we were to appeal it we might have a chance of winning the appeal,” Dr. Smith said, “but the appeal could take an incredible length of time, which means for that period of time the residents in the district, the clients, potential clients in the district, would get no service from community action because the grantor can legally hold up funding while the appeal is going on…

“The longer you take to agree to rescinding it the more you're going to hurt the residents of the district and my sincere desire was that services be ongoing, that there would not be a termination of service,” she said, adding, “I don't mind a good fight but if my fighting this is going to have a negative impact on the district then it was better to just say 'Okay, let's just give in and let them do this.' And it's being done, not in a…the whole issue is there is not enough discretionary money in HOPE so that if the federal money or the state grant dries up you can keep going. And all of the grants require that you have an independent source of income. HOPE does not have that. Some of the grants require a match. Some want a 50 percent match. Some want a 100 percent match. And if you don't have that it is a violation of the grant.”

But not every HOPE board member agrees that voluntarily relinquishing the community action agency status is best for the community. There is clearly a difference of opinion and point of view.

“The reason why I feel we should keep the community action agency designation is because of the process it will take to get the community action agency designation back into our area,” HOPE board member Jasper Hendricks told The Herald on Monday. “When all we have to do is fix the problems that the state has identified in their letter. My issue is that, as a board, we have not addressed the financial mismanagement, we have not addressed the unacceptable audit that was presented to us, and we haven't addressed any of the issues that were outlined, not just in the letter from the Department of Social Services but also communications from the Department of Housing and Community Development, also from Head Start, from Health and Human Services. Each agency, and some of our other funders as well, such as Project Discovery, every one in all those letters they had specific reasons why they were taking the actions that they were taking.

“And in all of those letters,” continued Hendricks, who is the Democratic Party's candidate for the 60th District House of Delegates seat, “they have suspended, not terminated, funding. They just want us to address (the issues)…”

Hendricks added that conversations with the state have indicated to him that services could be interrupted for the same amount of time no matter what decision the board makes.

And he questions whether other area action agencies, or non-profits, would actually agree to provide services to the six-county area were HOPE to voluntarily rescind the community action agency status.

“No matter what process, which road is taken, it's going to take about the same amount of time…It could take the same amount of time, because (residents) aren't receiving services now because of what's been going on with the agency,” Hendricks continued. “And the only thing, what they want us to do is address those issues that they've outlined…”

Hendricks said the Monday HOPE board meeting begun at the HOPE office was continued at another location, but not with all board members present, and that there were “some actions that were taken in the board meeting in hopes that we can begin the corrective steps…and we've had conversations with social services and let them know what it was we had talked about and what we had agreed on in the board meeting. This is a process. This is something that they're willing to work with us on to help get services in the community.”

Regarding any quick resumption of services should HOPE voluntarily rescind community action agency status, Hendricks said, “the thing is there aren't any organizations identified right now to take up the services…The process to find these organizations, they're hoping, the Department of Social Services is hoping that neighboring community action agencies will be willing to take it on. No organizations have been identified or confirmed. And so this process, the de-designation process will hopefully give us the time to present our case that the organization is on the right track, ensuring that people are receiving benefits and services that they need.”

Hendricks was adamant in his belief that “we have to keep our community action designation in our area” and he believes the involved agencies “are willing to work with us to keep it here in the area…”

Opinions and understandings differ, however.

HOPE board member and the organization's treasurer, Prince Edward Board of Supervisors member Howard Simpson, told The Herald on Monday, “The way I understand it by talking to Fran Inge…is that if we go ahead and relinquish it voluntarily that they can take the grant money and put it in Petersburg, South Boston and Richmond and the counties here…can go to those places and ask for help if they need it.

“But if we don't do it,” Simpson continued, “they've got to go through all of this process; they said it would take at least six to eight months to go through the process to get it straight before the governor will let them place the money somewhere else. So the people in this area will be out of the money for nearly a year. If they ask for any service they're going to say they can't have it.”

Executive director Smith was asked on Friday how relinquishing the community action agency designation would affect HOPE and she answered, “actually, I think it's going to be advantageous because I believe we can focus on other services to the community, deal more with crisis intervention rather than having the burden of dealing with federal agencies and all of the bureaucracy that goes along with that. We would be better able to help individuals based on their immediate crisis.

“And it opens us up to do more, in terms of, for instance, getting a shelter started in the area,” Dr. Smith continued. “Farmville does not have a shelter. We have people who are homeless, we have to send them to Richmond or Lynchburg to get overnight care or shelter care. We recently had to send a young 19-year-old homeless man to Charlottesville and the person was more familiar with the Farmville area, so I think in terms of what this means for HOPE it gives us an opportunity to re-invent ourselves and expand our service to the community.”

Asked about where funding for crisis intervention initiatives would come from, HOPE's executive director, describing her vision of the future, said, “we will continue and enhance our campaign with churches, with other non-profits. We'll try to partner with some of the established non-profits in Farmville…There are a number of churches that try to do some community service but it's sporadic because they don't have the technical resources or the staff to do the kinds of things that need to be done. I foresee working more with churches.”

Dr. Smith would like to see HOPE become a clearinghouse of data to help area churches make certain their monetary outreach to individuals and families facing, for example, an unpaid electric bill, rent, or other crisis is given for legitimate needs.

Churches would keep their funding, they would directly provide the outreach to individuals, as she imagines a future partnership, and HOPE would compile data on those receiving the aid to make sure they are not working the system, going from church to church to church seeking and receiving money for the same need.

“For instance, a person in need may go to Farmville Baptist Church or they may go to Farmville United Methodist or they may go to some other church. Sometimes people are not necessarily eligible but they'll take advantage of the system, they'll go from one church to another and nobody really knows what they're doing,” Dr. Smith explained. “One model that I've seen that I'd love to see tried out in Farmville is where the agency like HOPE would do the intake (act as a clearinghouse) and then refer them to the church so that we would know the person isn't going from church to church to church. There would be some monitoring so that churches would know their limited resources are being well spent.

“And the money would not come to HOPE,” she is quick to add. “It would go to the (person in need, given to them by the church). The church would hold the money but we could do the data, maintain data for the church…HOPE would be like a clearinghouse for the area. Most churches don't have staff to give full-time assistance to something like this. We have the staff and we have the technical resources…The church would keep its money but we would be the clearinghouse and the church could feel confident that once we have done the intake, and we've put it in the system, then when we refer that family to your church you can be confident that that family, if they do try to go to (another church, too) then the computer's going to alert, there's going to be an alert there that this family has already received service…”

Dr. Smith believes HOPE's current staff, supplemented by interns and volunteers from Longwood University or Hampden-Sydney College, for example, could perform the clearinghouse service for area churches and their community outreach programs.

“I don't need a big staff. Fortunately, I have a really competent staff now. It's only about six of us but I think we can do that, along with interns we get from Longwood, from Hampden-Sydney. We even get a number of people from Court Services who have been very helpful,” she continued. “So I think we can still be a viable part of the community and really do some worthwhile work in the community.”

That HOPE can continue to be a viable part of the community and do worthwhile work is something the HOPE board of directors agrees upon.

The crucial next step on how to proceed, on the other hand, has not found everyone seeing eye to eye.