BOC mulls 'umbrella' nonprofit

MANSFIELD — The Board of Commissioners is considering forming an "umbrella" 501(c)(3) organization, with itself as board of directors, that would potentially take under its wing several nonprofits, including Newton County Senior Services.

The restructuring of Senior Services was discussed at the board's retreat, held Saturday and Sunday at Burge Plantation in Mansfield.

Several county officials have expressed concerns that Senior Services staff report to a volunteer board of directors rather than the Board of Commissioners. Further, that board of directors is no longer functioning, as two members and the chairman have resigned and one member is no longer attending meetings. The board has not met since spring 2009, according to Commissioner Nancy Schulz.

At their Feb. 16 meeting, Schulz, Chairman Kathy Morgan and Commissioner Tim Fleming temporarily appointed themselves to the board so as not to lose a $60,000 United Way grant. But by the next day, they discovered they had violated the bylaws by doing so.

The BOC held a special called meeting during the retreat to make new temporary appointments. Benny Phillips, former chairman of the Senior Services board, was reappointed; along with County Clerk Jackie Smith to serve in District 1; and Recreation Commission Director Tommy Hailey, to serve in District 5. It is not required that appointees live within the same district they serve — Smith lives in District 1 but Hailey does not live in District 5.

The appointments will stand until the BOC can decide how to restructure Senior Services. The 501(c)(3) and governing board of directors were formed following notification to Senior Services in 2005 that it would not be eligible for a United Way grant without 501(c)(3) status.

"I never understood at that time that we were turning over the operations of that program to the board of directors," Commissioner Mort Ewing said.

But, according to the bylaws, Ewing said the board of directors is authorized to administer services and disburse funds; employ and manage employees and prescribe duties; and supervise and oversee the duties of all employees.

"This is a group of volunteers. We're asking them to not only hire staff but to manage staff and disburse the money and account for it. It hasn't worked and it won't work when you've got an organization as big as that," Ewing said.

The 501(c)(3) was formed because many corporations have policies stating they can only give to organizations with that status, though technically, a donation made to Newton County to be applied toward Senior Services would be tax exempt, said County Attorney Tommy Craig.

But, "I've always been told, he who has the gold, makes the rules," Craig said. "And many of these corporations have internal policies that say they can only give to 501(c)(3)s, and they say, ‘We don't want to hear all this racket about how you've found another way.'"

If the board formed a so-called umbrella organization, the 501(c)(3) board of directors could still remain in place to help raise funds, but would report to commissioners.

Currently, Senior Services is the only 501(c)(3) formed and approved by the county.

However, other nonprofits could also come under the umbrella, such as Friends of Denny Dobbs Park or Miracle League of Newton County.

But Schulz said she's hesitant to go that route.

"This feels like growing government here," she said. "What's to stop any 501(c)(3), the Chamber, the Arts Association, to want to come under this umbrella to get extra funding?"

Morgan said the county is the fiscal agent for funds received from the state by Senior Services, and otherwise, the agency would not get those funds. Similarly, Denny Dobbs park is a county facility and it and the Miracle League are being undertaken by the Recreation Commission, a county department. The BOC would have discretion as to what organizations to include, she said.

The board is expected to continue discussing the issue in the coming weeks.

Morgan said despite the current organizational structure, Senior Services Director Josephine Brown updates her and Executive Officer John Middleton, and there is no problem with Brown's job performance.

Brown said Monday she could not comment on the proposal by the board because she has not been contacted or given any information. Brown said she requested to attend the retreat but was told there was no need.

"I don't know anything because nobody told me anything. I'm going on business as usual," she said.

She did clarify a statement made during an August BOC meeting, when the issue was first publicly discussed.

At the meeting, Ewing said the purpose of forming the nonprofit and creating a board of directors was to secure additional donations for Senior Services. But out of the $657,193 annual budget for Senior Services, only about $78,000 has come in through donations, he said.

The organization serves 566 people per year, meaning that about $1,167 is spent per person served annually, he said.

"If we're only serving 566 people and we're spending $657,000 per year to do that, I think we need to take a closer look at it," Ewing said.

Brown said the $78,000 was raised by staff and seniors and donations coming in from the private sector. The county appropriates about 25 percent of the budget, she said, with the rest funded through grants and other funding that she and her staff pursue.

"That all comes through this place, not the Board of Commissioners. I don't want anyone in the community thinking we're hiding behind a 501(c)(3) and not doing anything with the money. We run a transparent program. There are no improprieties going on over here. This program has put Newton County on the map in terms of social services and senior services," she said.