State Keeps Moving To Dis-Pair HOPE From Community Action Agency Status

Published 5:35 pm Thursday, September 12, 2013

FARMVILLE — HOPE is not giving up.

The Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) is moving forward to formally de-designate HOPE Community Services as a community action program, which would deprive the agency of vital community services block grant funding.

But HOPE is not waving a white flag of surrender and is determined to provide an expanding array of services to those in need, regardless of whether it is de-designated as a community action program or not.

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Word of the VDSS decision was emailed to HOPE on Tuesday afternoon in the form of a letter from Margaret Ross Schultze, VDSS Commissioner, to Ellesworth Bennett, HOPE Community Services’ board of directors president.

HOPE has 30 days to request a federal-level review by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the agency is already following through to contest a decision it regards as unfair and based on the past rather than the present.

A second letter was also emailed to HOPE, one from Commissioner Schultze to Dr. James W. Gray, with the Office of Community Services within HHS, and its concluding paragraph sums up VDSS’s justification for de-designation, saying that “HOPE’s deficiencies are multiple, widespread and cannot feasibly be corrected to bring the organization back into legal compliance with all requirements. Given its history of deficit spending, significant debt, insufficient cash and cash equivalents needed to operate on a cost reimbursement basis, the inability or unwillingness of the Board of Directors to provide effective financial oversight and governance, the loss of most of its grant funding (Head Start, Weatherization and Homeless Assistance, Project Discovery, and all county funding) and related services, and failure to effectively implement its Corrective Action Plan dated September 29, 2011, the Virginia Department of Social Services hereby recommends termination of HOPE Community Service’s designation as a community action program.”

HOPE officials believe the VDSS position ignores current efforts to address concerns and contest the accuracy of some of the arguments made to justify the state’s position.

“We do plan to continue service,” HOPE’s interim executive director, Dr. Henry J. Featherston, who came aboard this summer, told The Herald during a Wednesday interview at the agency’s South Main Street office. “We’re going to appeal the decision…We think we are being penalized for the mistakes of others…

“We responded to every, every deficiency that the VDSS said we had, or the agency had, and they’re going back as far as 2011 and holding us accountable for that and we can’t change what happened two, three years ago—but all of that is part of their report that we got saying these are the reasons that they are going on with the de-designation,” Dr. Featherston said.

“And we just disagree with that,” he said, noting, for example, that most of the “proactive” board of directors is comprised of people appointed this summer.

As for persuading the feds in HHS, Dr. Featherston said, “we’re going to give it our very best shot.”

HOPE’s interim executive director said there are “things in the letter that are not accurate. For instance, the first glaring issue said that we had a hearing on July 13.”

The VDSS fact-finding conference was held in Farmville on August 14.

“That’s the very first thing in the letter,” he said.

HOPE board member Jasper L. Hendricks III said he believes the VDSS had pre-judged HOPE regarding whether or not to move forward, as it has decided to do, with de-designation.

“We feel it was a decision that was already made,” he said Wednesday, also speaking to The Herald in HOPE’s Main Street office.

Whatever the federal decision, HOPE doesn’t plan to shut its doors.

“If, per chance, we don’t win the appeal,” Dr. Featherston said, “it’s not going to close us down.”

Hendricks cited the agency’s 40-year history of providing services, “much-needed services to the community,” and pledged that history was not coming to an end.

An after-school tutoring and mentoring program will begin on September 30 “here in the building,” Hendricks said, noting that conversations are ongoing between HOPE and state officials in other departments about applying for their sources of grant funding.

“We have a lot to correct,” Hendricks said.

HOPE had presented its case for keeping both the action agency status and the crucial funding during the August 14 fact-finding conference.

The VDSS was moving forward under Sections 676(c) of the CSBG (Community Services Block Grant) ACT to recommend rescinding HOPE Community Services designation as a community action agency based on failure to comply with the State Plan, Standard or Requirement.

Hendricks had been given the responsibility by the HOPE of presenting the organization’s case during the fact-finding conference and spoke for approximately 35 minutes to Fran Inge, director of the department’s Office of Volunteer and Community Services, and Jack Frazier, acting Deputy Commissioner in Charge of Operations for VDSS, who both listened attentively. Thick written documentation and supporting documents were provided for Inge and Frazier to carry back to Richmond.

The fact-finding gathering was held to provide information for VDSS to help decide whether or not to continue proceeding down that de-designation road, that decision now made and announced.

VDSS had strongly recommended earlier this summer that HOPE’s board of directors voluntarily give up the agency’s community action agency status, which would have allowed the state to immediately focus on re-establishing delivery of services in the six-county area, rather than devote its attention to rescinding HOPE’s community action agency status.

In a June 14 letter to HOPE, Inge had written, “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.”

Hendricks spoke at length and in detail, addressing successive points raised regarding HOPE, and told the VDSS officials that the newly-expanded HOPE board and its volunteer interim executive director, Dr. Featherston, have been working to correct cited deficiencies and take corrective action to turn the organization around.

Dr. Featherston, president of the Amelia branch of the NAACP, retired after a decades-long career in the Amelia County Public School system, and he also served as Amelia School Board chairman. More specific to HOPE, he served for close to a quarter of a century on the area’s community action agency board of directors, including a short stint previously as interim executive director.

“So we’ve been active in reaching out to the surrounding community,” Hendricks said, “in helping to rebuild a structure…so we can build from the ground up.”

Hendricks also told Frazier and Inge that HOPE was cooperating with a State Police investigation, an investigation that remains underway.

Virginia State Police Special Agent-Accounting, Chuck Myers, was in attendance during the August 14 fact-finding conference and confirmed to The Herald that there is “an ongoing investigation.” When asked how to accurately describe the specific focus of the investigation, Myers referred The Herald to Virginia State Police public relations director, Corinne Geller.

Contacted by The Herald and asked for specific wording to accurately describe the investigation, Geller responded by email: “The Virginia State Police are involved in an ongoing investigation related to the HOPE Community Services Center. That’s all I can provide/say at this time.”

Geller was contacted by The Herald on Tuesday and asked about the status of the investigation. She replied, via email, “Yes, it’s still ongoing…”

During the first week of July, Inge had been asked by The Herald if she could foresee any circumstances in which HOPE could successfully appeal and keep its community action agency status and regain state community services block grant funding.

“No,” she replied.

HOPE has not given up on turning that “No” into a “Yes” from Washington, D.C.

HOPE is not hopeless.