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REACH funding called into question by commissioners

A non-profit that helps abused women escape domestic violence could be facing a budget cut by Jackson County commissioners this year.

Commissioner Joe Cowan is leading the charge to cut REACH’s budget. Cowan cited a lack of accountability for the services provided by the non-profit.

“There’s some things I’d like to know more about before committing more money,” Commissioner Joe Cowan said at a recent commissioners meeting. “I want to know if we are being duped.”

For example, Cowan wanted to know how many women were served by REACH and in what manner — from the number of women staying in the shelter each night to the number of women who participate in support group sessions and for how many hours.

Commissioner William Shelton was the only one to speak in favor of supporting REACH’s full request for funding. Shelton said he had no reason to believe that REACH was trying to cheat the county.

“I know people who have been heavily involved in REACH over the years, and they are just a group I’m not that suspicious of,” Shelton said. “I believe in their mission and their cause. Believe me, I want to save some money somewhere, too, but REACH is a very important organization. I agree with women’s advocacy.”

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Historically, the county gave REACH $15,000 a year, but two years ago upped its contribution to $50,000. The budget for the coming fiscal year calls for lowering the contribution back to $15,000.

Marsha Griffin, director of client services at REACH, asked commissioners to think about the women out there that need help getting away from abusive husbands and boyfriends.

“They are residents of Jackson County,” said Griffin. “Without your financial support, we would not be able to provide these services that are so needed in Jackson County.”


What REACH does

REACH provides a variety of support to victims of domestic violence. It runs a shelter, operates a 24-hour emergency help line and provides psychological counseling and support. This front-end work tries to convince women to leave their abusive partner. The next step is helping women start over, which means job counseling, housing assistance and life training in how to survive on their own so they won’t return to their abusive partner. REACH also guides women through the court system — from those seeking restraining orders to those testifying against their husbands for abuse.

If not for REACH, who would fill this needed role? asked Sylva attorney David Moore, the board president of REACH.

“What we are asking for, we don’t believe is unreasonable,” Moore said. “We provide a service to residents of the county. Those services, if they aren’t provided by us, are going to have to be provided by somebody else or not be provided at all.”

There’s more at stake than simply the county’s contribution, Moore said. REACH gets $560,000 in state and federal grants to run its operations. REACH has to come up with a 20 percent local match, however. The $50,000 from the county doesn’t cover the full match, and the rest comes from fundraising. If the county cuts its contribution from $50,000 to $15,000, that’s even more money REACH has to raise.

“That is difficult in this day in age with all the organizations that are out there,” Moore said. “There’s a stark reality that we won’t get all our state and federal funding in the future if we don’t have that local match.”

This year, REACH got extra support from the county to the tune of $20,000 to upgrade security at its domestic violence shelter following the murder a women staying there. The woman’s husband forced his way into the shelter and shot his wife. The emergency contribution paid for a steel door, cameras and a security system at the shelter.


Proper accountability?

Previously, Jackson County has given REACH a check each year without knowing exactly what it was spent on. Cowan objected to this type of carte blanche donation.

Commissioner Mark Jones said he has personally supported REACH over the years, as has the High Hampton Inn where he was general manager. But he agreed there should be more accountability.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland developed a compromise that would give REACH up to $50,000 a year, but would be based on a per capita formula — such as $30 per person per night for shelter services or $75 per person for a counseling session. REACH would report the number of women it served and be reimbursed accordingly up to $50,000 for the year.

Cowan didn’t like the plan, however.

“That’s just a farce. It’s just squishing the money around to look favorable,” Cowan said. “I’ve never seen a non-profit in my life that wasn’t for somebody’s profit. It goes to somebody’s salary and benefits.”

Indeed, most of the money REACH gets pays for staff. The staff provides protection, support, counseling and training to help the abused women rebuild their lives. REACH has 13 full-time staff and three part-time.

County commissioners were under the impression that REACH had refused to provide a list of salaries for their employees. Cowan said that was enough to turn him off funding REACH.

“That’s enough for me right there. It’s a non-profit thing and it never quite works the way they say it does,” Cowan said. “I’m not in favor of giving them this kind of money.”

REACH did provide a list of salaries for its staff, however, but the list had a black line drawn through the names and positions tied to each salary.

“It is a violation of federal law to turn over individual employee’s information without their consent,” Moore said. “We have been as transparent as we are allowed to be.”

In addition, REACH provided a budget summary, Moore said.

“It showed here where our money is coming from and here’s where the money is going,” Moore said.

Jackson County is not the first to ask for more accountability from non-profits that get county grants. Haywood County has a standing policy that all non-profits must have an annual audit to be eligible for county contributions out of taxpayers’ pockets, as does the town of Waynesville.


Too many requests

Commissioner Tom Massie said the county needs to balance the requests of all the non-profits in the county.

“I think they do good work, but there are a lot of community non-profits out there that do good work,” Massie said.

Competing requests from non-profits pose a problem for many counties come budget time. Macon County has come up with a unique way to deal with the issue. Every year, the county sets aside a community funding pool for non-profits. Non-profits submit their funding requests to a committee appointed by county commissioners. The committee reviews the applications and decides how much the non-profits should get.

“It works well for us,” said Evelyn Southard, Macon County finance director. “The key is to have good people on that committee. They have very stringent criteria.”

The Macon commissioners have been consistent in following the recommendations of the committee.

“If they didn’t, they would be right back where we were before we started doing this,” Southard said.

When Jackson County increased its contribution to REACH from $15,000 to $50,000 two years ago, it was allegedly a stop-gap measure for a grant that that fell through, not a permanent increase, Massie said.

“It is a slippery slope, when you make supposedly one-time investments in an organization,” Massie said.

Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan didn’t weigh in one way or the other on how much REACH should get. Instead, McMahan suggested revisiting the issue again at the next county budget workshop.

Meanwhile, commissioners awarded an $8,000 budget request to encourage kids to exercise. The money will be used for T-shirts and water bottles to pass out to kids. Cowan supported the funding request, saying the T-shirts and water bottles would encourage kids to participate in the exercise program.

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