COVINGTON -- While the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter still has a utility credit with the city of Covington, those funds will likely run out shortly after Christmas, Mayor Ronnie Johnston said at a homeless shelter board meeting Monday morning.
Discussion of how to avert another impending utility crisis and frustration with the lack of activity that has taken place since the last crisis was resolved were topics at the board meeting.
Participation of board members is still a problem. The board was reduced from 11 to eight at the last meeting, and only four of the eight members attended Monday's meeting. There has only been one meeting with a quorum of board members for at least several months.
Commissioner Lanier Sims, who, like Johnston, is not a member of the board but has been attending meetings and trying to keep the shelter open, noted that, "If it's been three months and nothing's happened, you're not going to keep board members, you're not going to keep volunteers, if nothing is changing."
Johnston has been pushing for the shelter to undergo a financial audit and be transparent about finances and operations with the community. He recommended in October that the shelter utilize the services of a local couple with nonprofit and legal experience who volunteered to do a complete financial and management audit. Thus far, the board has not taken action on that recommendation, and Johnston said he won't remain involved if it does not follow through.
"If there's nothing we're going to do, it's a slow death," said Johnston.
He said he's hesitant to personally ask the public for more donations given that his call for reorganization and transparency has not happened. The community needs to know how much the shelter is taking in and how much it needs to operate, he said.
"If this board doesn't step up, I don't mean to be the bearer of bad news, but I don't know how the heck y'all are going to continue to operate," Johnston said, adding that he believes a cloud of negativity hangs over the shelter and the community won't support the operation until that changes.
He also said the next time utilities are in arrears, the city will have to turn them off. The shelter was in danger of having utilities cut off in October, but the community and shelter board members stepped up and donated around $18,000 to keep it running.
Cheryl Heard, treasurer and board of directors member, said there are two grants that the shelter has applied for -- from the Porter Fund and General Mills -- that could bring in up to $50,000. Last year, the shelter did not receive grant money from the Porter Fund for the first time in about a decade because the application was not turned in on time. Heard said the deadline for applications was changed.
Heard and the director, Rev. Clara Lett, who was absent at the meeting due to illness, have reported in the past that donations and grants have been drying up, and Lett said that while agencies and churches inside and outside the county, including neighboring Rockdale County, use the shelter, most don't contribute financially.
A recent presentation by Lett to the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners did not yield any results, nor did a letter to churches, it was reported at the meeting. About 40 percent of the shelter's clients are referred by Rockdale agencies, according to Lett.
The shelter was more than $5,300 in arrears on utilities in October, but the city allowed the shelter to surpass the deadline for cut off while Johnston solicited donations from the public to keep the doors open. Johnston said there needs to be a plan for where to send residents if utilities are cut off.
A bank account set up for utilities at Newton Federal is still open and accepting donations.
Johnston said it's critical that Lett realize the need for help in managing the financial operations of the shelter, a point that former Mayor Sam Ramsey, a long-time supporter of the shelter and board member, said he agreed with: "Clara's got to have some help," he said, but both Ramsey and Chairman Doug Doster said they don't believe Lett is willing to step down as CEO of the operation.
The board also discussed conducting surveys of residents who stay at the shelter and the community at large about operations and public perception.
The board will meet again on Jan. 3.