Shelter gets plan for deposit

COVINGTON -- The City Council agreed Monday night to a payment plan that would allow Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter to pay a $5,000 utility deposit over the course of one year.

The Rev. Clara Lett, director of the shelter, came before the council to ask for a waiver of the deposit. The shelter's board of directors is taking over the lease to the property and the utility account from the Covington Housing Authority. The Housing Authority has been paying utilities for the building, located on Turner Lake Circle in Covington, since it opened in June, Lett said, but added that she intends to reimburse the authority.

The shelter's deposit was based on a credit check and the average monthly bill for 2009, which came to roughly $4,000, according to city clerk Tonya Grier. The shelter has 11 meters, which are considered separate accounts, she said.

"Is the idea to give you a waiver because you're the homeless shelter?" asked Mayor Kim Carter.

"No, it's because we don't have $5,000," Lett responded. "If the utilities go away, we'll have people on the streets of Covington."

"I feel for the organization but our policy is our policy. If we make a waiver in one instance, we will have to do that for everyone who comes through the door," Carter said.

However, not all council members agreed.

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said since the city has already spent more than $1 million -- to purchase the property where the shelter is located on Turner Lake Circle and cover some repairs to the building -- the council should be willing to spend a little more to get it on its feet, so to speak.

"I would hate to turn our backs on this for $5,000 when we've already spent $1 million. We need to do something because we have so much money invested in this property already," she said.

Councilwoman Janet Goodman asked if the shelter could be put on a payment plan. Grier said that has been done for customers in the past. Typically, a payment plan would be six months, she said.

However, Goodman suggested it be extended to a year for the shelter to allow the board enough time to pursue grants and get more funding for operations. Once the lease is turned over to the shelter board of directors, plenty of grant opportunities should be available, she said.

Williams said there have been many roadblocks in getting the homeless shelter established and running independently."If (Lett) had the lease, she would have been in perfect financial condition," Williams said.

Lett said it was an oversight by the Housing Authority that the lease had not been turned over sooner. She said she has been attempting to get the utilities accounts transferred to the shelter but couldn't because they did not have the lease.

However, Jim Alexander, attorney for the Housing Authority, said Tuesday that he delivered a lease to the shelter's attorney in March.

"I have no idea why it hasn't been signed. We've been pressing them to get it done," he said.

Alexander said he believes the lease has now been signed following a meeting with the shelter board.

"I'm 90 percent sure it has been turned over. If it's not signed, I hope it will be tonight" during another meeting between the board and authority, he said.

Alexander said the authority intends to be reimbursed for the utility payments.

Councilman Chris Smith said he worried the city would wind up paying the deposit.

"We're eventually going to end up paying it, because what's going to happen when they come back and say we can't pay the bill?" he said.

Williams responded that was "putting the cart before the horse." She said she couldn't see putting people out on the street and there would be people sleeping on the Square if the shelter had to close.

Carter cautioned the council it could be setting a precedent for other nonprofits and individuals who are struggling to pay utility bills if they allowed the payment plan. But Goodman said, "This is a unique and different situation."

City Attorney Ed Crudup suggested that the city allow the shelter to pay the deposit at a rate of $100 the first month, and increase that by increments of $100 each month. That would give them some relief in the beginning and the payment would be made within about 10 months, he said.

The vote to approve that payment plan was approved 4-2, with Smith and Councilman Keith Dalton in opposition.