Sunday, March 18, 2001

Center funding in jeopardy

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — The Northern Kentucky Community Center is scrambling to produce financial records to satisfy the United Way, which may further slash its donations to the center if the documentation is not forthcoming.

        This year, United Way gave $171,000 to the center for its housing counseling, emergency shelter and youth development programs. Located in the heart of Covington's African-American community, the center provides recreation programs for young people as well as direct services to low-income families.

[photo] The Northern Kentucky Community Center is gathering records for the United Way, which funds nearly half the center's budget.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        United Way contributes nearly half of the center's $360,000 annual budget. Since September, it has been waiting to receive a routine financial audit of the center's 1998 operations.

        United Way representatives recently met with center board members to express concerns about the center's record-keeping, United Way spokeswoman Carol Aquino said.

        In addition to the overdue audit, the community center hasn't filed a tax return in five years, the Enquirer learned through a records request to the Internal Revenue Service.

        As a nonprofit organization, the center doesn't owe taxes, but it still must file annual returns and make them available for public inspection. Agencies can be fined if they don't comply, IRS spokeswoman Teri Dixon said.

        The community center's attorney, Steve Wolnitzek, acknowledged the paperwork problems and said they were because of “oversight and, I guess, insufficient staff.” The 1998 audit is nearly complete, and the board of directors is working on the tax returns, Mr. Wolnitzek said.

        Board members expressed confidence they can satisfy the United Way and prevent programs from being cut. In response to questions from the Enquirer, the board issued a written statement last week:

        “While we realize that we have been deficient in some areas, we are working feverishly to rectify all issues of concern. We maintain that at no time have we intentionally been negligent nor have we misappropriated any funds.”

        The Northern Kentucky Community Center is located in the former Lincoln-Grant School, which has great sentimental significance to residents of East Covington. Before public schools were integrated, Lincoln-Grant educated the area's black children, and many have fond memories of that time.

        The community center, founded in 1973, was supposed to be a similar focal point for the neighborhood. Today, the cavernous building is used for basketball leagues, day care, community meetings, festivals and Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

        In addition, eight full-time and 12 part-time staff members run various services, including a food pantry and a rent-assistance program.

        But other projects have come and gone as volunteers lost interest or funding was cut. A GED tutoring program fizzled out. A computer lab that opened with fanfare in 1998 stopped drawing residents when the donated machines became obsolete.

        Despite the board's assurances that problems will be resolved, staff members recently received notice that contributions to their retirement fund were being frozen.

        Other signs of trouble:

        • This year, for the first time in many years, the community center was denied $9,000 in federal money to make rent payments for people on the verge of eviction. The money comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is distributed by a board of Kenton County citizens. The chairman of that board, the Rev. Bill Cleves, would not say why the center's request was rejected.

        The board's decision has been appealed by the community center.

        • Senior Services of Northern Kentucky last year canceled its meals program at the center because only two to five seniors were showing up each day. Eight other meal centers in the region have an average of 30 participants each, the agency says.

        Senior Services had been paying the center $200 a month to rent space for its program.

        “We would have loved to have a vibrant, active program there that drew people in, but we weren't able to find that key over there,” said Paula Von Kuster, director of client services with the agency.

        • In 1999, the United Way canceled about $55,000 in annual funding for the center's “neighborhood organization” program. This United Way gift was in addition to more than $100,000 a year in other funding that the center still receives.

        With the $55,000 a year, the center was supposed to be helping residents form alliances to address neighborhood concerns. But, “it's my impression the program never really got going,” said Ms. Aquino, the United Way spokeswoman.

        The charity still gave the center $384,000 over seven years to conduct the neighborhood organization program. This is partly because few other agencies were present in the neighborhood, Ms. Aquino said.

        “There's certainly a strong feeling that we want to be providing services to the people of East Covington,” she said.

        Over the last two years, United Way has changed its accountability system and trained agencies to meet new requirements. Organizations now must document, for instance, the results achieved with United Way dollars, Ms. Aquino said.

        Rollins Davis, the center's executive director since 1994, defended the neighborhood organization program, saying it made a difference.

        For three years, he led a committee that pressed the city to improve Randolph Park, located next to the center, he said. This year, Covington officials did spend $180,000 on playground equipment, landscaping and new lights at the ballpark.

        In addition, Mr. Davis led meetings in 1997 and 1998 in which citizens complained about crime and called for more police presence, according to newspaper articles from the time. In 1998, he expressed the group's concerns at a Covington City Commission meeting.

        “I've talked about, in passing, 20 to 40 issues a week with people in this community,” Mr. Davis said.

Ups and downs

               During its first 20 years, the community center essentially revolved around its founder: former Lincoln-Grant teacher William H. Martin. Well-connected and persuasive, Mr. Martin led the center from 1973 until 1994, when he stepped down for health reasons. Three years later, he died of a heart attack. Mr. Davis, 38, grew up in East Covington and spent seven years as youth programming coordinator at the center before landing the top job.

        He said the agency faces two key challenges: lack of money for an administrative staff to handle paperwork and lack of volunteers from the community.

        “You have to look at the total picture here, the demographics,” he said. “Do people have a high level of understanding of volunteerism here?”

        He answered his own question: In low-income neighborhoods, residents are more concerned with day-to-day “survival issues,” he said. East Covington isn't like Blue Ash or Roselawn, where upper-class people have time and resources to donate, Mr. Davis said. Only 45 percent of adult residents in East Covington have high school diplomas or GEDs, according to the 1990 Census, and 75 percent of families have incomes of less than $25,000 a year. Statistics from the 2000 Census have not yet been released.

        Two recent developments illustrate the center's potential and its shortcomings.

        Last July, it received $25,000 from the state's Juvenile Justice Department to provide a mentor ing program for youths. Mr. Davis hired an East Covington woman as the part-time program coordinator.

        The coordinator quickly recruited 35 volunteers from companies such as Fidelity Investments, Cintas and Procter & Gamble. She also organized an advisory council of parents and volunteers.

        One East Covington mother, Sharon Taylor, has six children in the program. They have attended sporting events and gone ice-skating with their mentors, who also tutor them in school.

        “It's turning out to be a really good program,” says Ms. Taylor, who works at Kroger. “(The children) like the idea they can call somebody if there's something they want to do and I might not have time.”

        The $25,000 in grant money is paid to the community center as it requests reimbursement, state officials said. But after nine months, it had submitted receipts for only 18 percent — or $4,500 — of the funds, said Kym Newcom, spokeswoman for the Juvenile Justice Department.

        By comparison, other agencies had spent about 25 percent of their money after six months, she said.

        To make full use of its mentoring grant, the Northern Kentucky Community Center must spend $20,500 over the next three months. Mr. Davis did not return a phone call seeking comment on the unused funds.

        The mentoring coordinator declined to comment, saying she didn't know anything about the budget for her program.

        One fan of the project is Jeff Thornton, a former fighter who trains youths to box. Several times a week, he works with about 16 kids at the community center, which received boxing equipment from the city in 1995.

        Several of his trainees have been struggling in school, so he successfully referred them to mentors, he said.

        “What I'm trying to do is bring kids back to NKCC, because it's such a nice building and they have a lot for them to do,” Mr. Thornton said.

        He recently got excited about an opportunity to expand the center's offerings.

        The Housing Authority of Covington had been running a fitness center near the Jacob Price public housing complex. Then the authority lost funding and had to give up the site. To keep the treadmills, stationary bikes and free weights in East Covington, it offered to essentially donate them to the community center, said Tom Schmitz, deputy director of the Housing Authority.

        But the center had no money to staff such a program, so the equipment is sitting in storage, Mr. Schmitz said.

        Mr. Thornton couldn't believe the opportunity was lost.

        “People were telling me we were going to get the equipment down there,” he said. “That would bring the people back.”

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