'Shocked And Devastated'

Published 3:53 pm Tuesday, April 8, 2014

FARMVILLE — Governor Terry McAuliffe has rescinded the community action agency designation for HOPE Community Services, which changed its name last fall to New Horizons Community Action Partnership.

“This rescission is effective immediately,” Governor McAuliffe writes in a March 31 letter to the board chair of the organization.

The state will now begin the process of designating a new community action agency for the six-county area, according to Fran Inge, Director of the Office on Volunteerism and Community Service with the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS). That agency would then receive crucial community development block grant funding.

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Inge emailed The Herald with an attached copy of Governor McAuliffe’s letter “concerning the de-designation of HOPE Community Services (New Horizons Community Action Partnership). Moving forward, we will be engaging the community to identify and recommend to the Governor an agency to serve as the area’s community action program.”

New Horizon’s interim executive director, Dr. Henry Featherston, told The Herald on Tuesday that he was “shocked and devastated” by the decision to de-designate the agency as a community action agency.

And he believes New Horizons will have to close down because of a lack of funds, a decision he expects the board of directors to make this week.

“The board is going to meet on Thursday to make a decision on it. I don’t know but I’m reasonably certain the agency’s going to have to close…We have no money and with no money we can’t operate,” he told the newspaper in a telephone interview.

Dr. Featherston, who has been volunteering his time since being appointed last summer, said he would recommend to the board of directors that they vote to close the agency.

“I’m going to have to do that. I don’t have any other choice,” he said. “…Nobody has been paid at the agency…Even out of my pocket I paid the light bill last month, and the telephone bill, and I can’t do that. I did it one time and I told the board last month I wasn’t going to do it again…

“…They just volunteered their time,” he said of those staffing the Farmville office. “I volunteered my time. Money was not the issue with me. The issue was, hopefully we would turn it around, so we just kept volunteering and people (in the six-county service area) needed the help. People still need the help but it’s not going to happen through New Horizons.”

Dr. Featherston, who accepted the interim executive directorship late last summer, mailed a memo to board members at the end of last month saying that because of a lack of federal, state and local funds it will be necessary to close the agency and that a decision on New Horizons’ status would be made during the April 10 board meeting.

The state, meanwhile, will be looking to designate a new community action agency for the area, regardless of what decision is made by New Horizons’ board this week.

In a follow-up email, Inge told the newspaper, “We will be working with the impacted communities and their county governments to see that CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) services are provided to their citizens as quickly as possible.”

In response to an area official who wanted to make certain that HOPE and New Horizons are one and the same as far as the de-designation decision is concerned, Inge replied via email, “One and the same. The letter went to HOPE Community Services because the last contract VDSS had with the organization was with HOPE Community Services. The organization changed their name on their own accord…”

In his one paragraph letter, Governor McAuliffe writes, “As provided in the Code of Virginia, Section 2.2-547D and pursuant to the recommendation of William A. Hazel, Jr., MD, Secretary of Health and Human Resources, and in response to the decision rendered by the Virginia Department of Social Services concerning the de-designation of HOPE Community Services as a community action agency for failure to comply with the CSBG Virginia State Plan standards or requirements, I hereby rescind HOPE Community Services’ designation as the community action agency servicing the counties of Amelia, Buckingham, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway, and Prince Edward. This rescission is effective immediately.”

The Virginia Department of Social Services had urged HOPE last summer to voluntarily rescind its community action agency status in order to avoid further delays in the resumption of community development block grant funding, which the state had suspended.

“The Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) still strongly recommends that the Board follow through on this action,” Inge wrote in a June 14, 2013 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 had told The Herald last summer that she could not foresee any circumstances in which HOPE could successfully appeal and keep its community action agency status and regain state community block grant funding.

“No,” she replied as June became July.

The VDSS held a fact-finding conference in Farmville in August, during which HOPE presented its case for keeping both the action agency status and the crucial funding.

The state was moving forward at the time to recommend to then-Governor McDonnell to rescind HOPE’s status, with HOPE ultimately appealing, unsuccessfully, at the federal level.

HOPE’S virtually re-constituted board of directors voted in September to change the organization’s name to New Horizons Community Action Partnership and began restructuring the organization as it awaited word on its appeal to Washington over the VDSS decision to move to formally de-designate the agency as a community action agency.

“We do plan to continue service,” Dr. Featherston told The Herald in the fall. “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 at the time.

“And we just disagree with that,” he said then, noting, for example, that most of what he described as a “proactive” board of directors is comprised of people appointed this summer (the summer of 2013).”

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

But the Amelia resident told The Herald on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe New Horizons got a fair hearing at the state or federal level.

“We’ve done a whole lot to try to turn things around and a lot of writing, a lot of calling, a lot of talking,” Dr. Featherston said, “but it seems that it’s to no avail. And I think the persons that made the decisions had their minds made up back in August. It was a matter of going through the process.”

Asked directly if he thought New Horizons got a fair hearing, he replied, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so. We got a letter as late as March 26 from the federal government saying they were investigating (the appeal) but never received any results and we sent a letter back in, maybe, September (and) we talked to the people in the feds and we were encouraged, things looked good but then we get this—and I haven’t really officially seen the letter (from Governor McAuliffe). Mr. Simpson (New Horizons board member Howard P. Simpson, of Prince Edward) showed me the letter—and I was just kind of shocked and devastated. So we’ve done a whole lot, I think, to show that we could be a responsible organization but I think the decision was never in question as far as the persons at the state who make the decision.”

Simpson agrees with Dr. Featherston’s assessment that New Horizons didn’t get a fair hearing from the state or feds.

“No, because to me, I don’t know who’s involved and all, but I think that it should have been looked into more about what New Horizons is doing instead of basing, I think, everything on what HOPE had done,” he told The Herald on Tuesday.

“I think (New Horizons) was headed back in a direction of where we could help the people of this community that need help,” Simpson said.

Simpson, a board member when the organization was known as HOPE, said that, despite New Horizons’ ability to serve the community, with no funding he also sees no alternative but closing the agency.

The state now faces the decision of what organization will take New Horizons’ place as the community action agency for the six-county area and, with that designation, crucial funding to serve those in need.