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Wednesday, 16 February 2011 20:08

Decades of helping domestic violence victims could end

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The financial situation facing REACH of Jackson County is so bleak the nonprofit is facing the possibility of shutting down, leaving women and children who live in abusive relationships nowhere locally to turn for help.

The nation’s economic downturn, coupled with what seems to have been terrible business decisions by the agency itself, have threatened to end the 32-year history of REACH.

The nonprofit in November 2001 opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. The “village,” as it’s dubbed, is now in foreclosure. Associated costs continue to bleed dollars although REACH is no longer making loan payments.

A couple of caveats: First, the current executive director of REACH, and the board members who oversee the agency, were not the ones making the decisions that helped land this anti-domestic abuse group in such dire straits.

Secondly, who can in good conscience flatly assert the prior board’s desire to build the village was a bad one? The federal government and state government approved the concept, local leaders joined in the general celebration when ribbon-cutting time came, newspapers across the region published articles and editorials that were supportive and full of acclaim; not one reporter, including this one, ever attempted to crunch the numbers themselves.

And, indeed, maybe the blame lies with nobody, but instead is the inevitable result of an impersonal crashing economy. Hard times certainly brought down bigger prey than this one small nonprofit group: whole housing developments went under. Banks went under. During the last election, Democratic control of the state and nation went under. Now, REACH, too, might go under.

The facts are these: If the people of Jackson County want the anti-domestic violence agency to continue operations, three things must happen. Wallets must open, volunteers must step forward, and the agency must successfully and completely reinvent itself.

 

Hunkering down

There is a certain bunker-mentality feel when you visit the administrative offices of REACH of Jackson County these days. Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer and the agency’s finance director, Janice Mason, are consumed with counting pennies. The two women’s workdays, and even some of their off-work hours, are spent discussing and mulling over how to best spend what they do have.

No money hasn’t meant no need: During fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.

No matter what happens to the nonprofit agency, Jackson County won’t be getting out of the domestic violence caretaking business, said Bob Cochran, director of the county’s Department of Social Services.

“If REACH weren’t there,” he said, “we would have to look at other ways to provide these services as a county and as a community.”

There are a few counties in North Carolina where local government does directly provide such services. Cochran really hopes it doesn’t come to that, however. He wants REACH to survive. Cochran said he intends to provide the agency’s workers with whatever support he can, including speaking on the nonprofit’s behalf to county leaders.

“REACH is just critical,” he said.

 

‘The numbers didn’t work … from Day One’

Shortly after she and her husband left Maine two years ago and Roberts-Fer started her new job in Jackson County, she had a terrible realization, one of those ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into’ moments.

“The agency was in financial trouble the day I came in,” Roberts-Fer said.  

REACH didn’t have enough money to make payments on the loans they’d taken out. The nine-apartment village, no matter how skillfully operated and managed, would never actually generate the funds to pay those loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The only income to offset the expenses was rent from the tenants, and “even if fully rented, it does not pay the mortgages and expenses,” the agency’s executive director said. “The numbers didn’t work, and they didn’t work from Day One. We told them (the note holders), to go ahead and foreclose. Take it.”

 

The vision

The village is a complex of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and a community center. There is a playground and commons area. As envisioned, the village apartments would serve domestic-abuse victims from Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties, along with those from the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

A decade later, however, and the dream is dead. The two note holders, the N.C. Housing Finance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are well into the foreclosure proceedings.

Adding to the problems: Insurance payments on the agency’s emergency shelter went sky-high after Bonnie Woodring, who was seeking protection from an abusive husband, was gunned down by John Raymond “Woody” Woodring in September 2006. He shot her inside the shelter after muscling his way in. Woodring later killed himself.

Additional security measures at the shelter were added in the wake of the shooting, another expense for REACH. It was critical that the agency reassure other domestic-violence victims they would find safe haven at the emergency shelter. Roberts-Fer said the shooting cast a long shadow over REACH: financially and emotionally, and that the legacy continues today.

There have been additional money woes: Water to tenants has been cut off at least once because REACH failed to pay the bill. The agency’s payroll was missed twice. Health insurance coverage lapsed for a time. Everyone kept working anyway, and eventually the agency’s employees did get paid — at least they did until about half of them were laid off as part of cost-savings measures. Today, there are seven fulltime REACH employees and two part-time workers. Additional staff reductions are likely, Roberts-Fer said.

Another, unidentified local nonprofit is weighing whether to continue offering low-income housing at the village, located just off N.C. 107 near Wal-Mart, but REACH wants shed of its role in the project. And as quickly as possible: Just keeping up with maintenance is proving too large a financial drain on the cash-strapped nonprofit. Selling it proved impossible because the village was worth less when appraised than what REACH owed on it, Roberts-Fer said.

As quickly as a new emergency shelter is ready, the agency plans to abandon the village lock, stock and barrel. The tenants in the village, she said, have been warned. Boxes of items are stacking up on the steps, waiting to be moved to the new location.

 

Bigger problems still loom

“Even then, though, we are going to be in trouble financially,” Roberts-Fer said.

The agency’s thrift shop is barely breaking even. Donations are down, and buyers don’t seem much interested in what items the REACH thrift shop does have to offer, she said.

Grants and other funding streams are drying up as North Carolina grapples with a shortfall numbering in the billions. And even more critical: A somewhat obtuse administrative detail on the state’s part, which is choking REACH’s finances, and is reportedly causing other nonprofits in North Carolina trouble, too.

The state once paid grant money upfront, apparently recognizing that the wiggle room for most small nonprofit agencies is marginal at best. No more — these days, payments don’t begin until about four months into the fiscal year, creating a cash-flow crunch.

“Last year, the only thing that got us through was a particular grant that gave us a little room to survive,” Roberts-Fer said.

That’s not how the situation is shaping up for fiscal year 2011-12, which starts July 1.

“Worst case, we won’t be able to function,” she said bluntly.

Why? There is no cash reserve. Zero. Nothing. Nada.

Banks, understandably, haven’t been eager to extend a line of credit to REACH. They’ve been turned down twice, even though one of the board members is an experienced banker. His bank, in fact, said no thanks.

Here’s the solution, perhaps the only means of saving REACH of Jackson County: A fairy godmother, or a slew of community donors, come up with a cash reserve for the agency of between $100,000-$150,000. This would give REACH the money needed to ride out the state’s Scrooge-like methods of doling out funds. Additionally, this three-month reserve fund would provide REACH the money needed in the future. The budget, Roberts-Fer said, would be stabilized.

“The board has already agreed we’d only use the money as cash flow against receivables,” she said.

Additionally, REACH is streamlining operations. Only essential, core services are being offered: the REACH crisis line, for example, the emergency shelter and legal advocacy.

“We’re determined that this will not be the last year for REACH,” Roberts-Fer said.

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