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Homeless shelter board offered help

COVINGTON -- Volunteers are coming forward to help the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter with improving operations.

At the board of directors meeting Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Ronnie Johnston notified members that a local couple -- Ed and Judith Weaver -- have volunteered to assist with a financial and management review of the shelter. Johnston said it's up to the board whether to accept that offer, but he recommended they do.

"Hopefully, this will give us some foundation, and that foundation we can use and leverage with the papers, with the people in the community. It's a new day. After this process, we can say hey, don't talk to me about the past," he said.

Johnston said his position that the shelter needs help with managing operations is "nothing personal."

"I think ya'll are pillars of the community and are doing great things. I want to get involved to try and help this process."

Also, "I want to be as transparent as we can to the community," he said.

The Weavers have done volunteer work with the shelter. Mrs. Weaver is a retired corporate attorney with a master's of law degree in taxation specializing in not-for-profits and has worked as a management consultant. She previously helped the shelter renegotiate its lease with the Covington Housing Authority for a reduced rate. Mr. Weaver has a doctorate in public administration and has operated large nonprofits, state agencies and worked as a consultant.

"Based on what we know, the larger issue is the overall lack of information about nonprofit management that resides at both the staff and board level of the Shelter," the Weavers stated in an email to Johnston that he distributed at the board meeting. "It might be helpful to you, before proceeding too far too quickly, to get a full review of the financial and management needs of the Shelter."

In addition to the Weavers, a gentleman who volunteers at the shelter who has experience drawing up strategic plans for non-profits, including a homeless shelter, volunteered to assist the board with creating a strategic plan to address where they want to go and how to get there.

The board did not vote to take any action on the strategic plan or the offer for a financial review Wednesday evening.

The board did vote to keep the account at Newton Federal that was set up by Johnston open until at least the end of the year. So far, more than $10,000 has been donated to the account, plus $6,000 donated by board members and about $1,400 donated directly to the shelter, putting total donations at nearly $18,000.

The account at Newton Federal will be used solely to pay for utilities.

"We will always have enough utilities to use up what's there. That's the biggest expense," said Chairman Doug Doster.

Board members said they will likely open another account in the future for general donations.

Board member Ed Hutter volunteered to head up fundraising efforts and suggested the board speak to agencies that refer clients to the shelter about contributing.

A list of 15 Newton County agencies and a dozen agencies in Rockdale that refer clients was presented Wednesday night. According to the shelter's Executive Director, Clara Lett, none of the agencies contribute financially to the shelter, with the exception of a few churches.

Referral agencies in Newton listed are: Salvation Army; Community Food Pantry; Solid Rock Wiling Helpers; FaithWorks; United Fund; Newton Medical Center; Repairers of the Breach; Covington Police Department; Newton County Sheriffs Office; Social Security Administration; Department of Family and Children Services; Newton County Parole Office; Newton County District Attorney's Office; Porterdale Police Department; Newton County School Homeless Liaison; and various churches.

Lett said 40 percent of the shelter's clients come from Rockdale County. Rockdale referral agencies listed are: Rockdale Emergency Relief; United Fund; Project Renewal; Rockdale Mental Health; Rockdale Department of Family and Children Services; St Vincent de Paul Society; Conyers Police Department; Rockdale Sheriffs Department; Rockdale Medical Center; Rockdale Parole Office; Rockdale County School Homeless Liaison; various churches.

Board member Sam Ramsey said he spoke with Rockdale BOC Chairman Richard Oden, who said the county could not contribute money, but invited Lett to speak before the BOC during its next meeting, noting that the meetings are televised and it would help get the word out to the community.

Hutter also volunteered to call current board members and find out if they are committed to participating. Commissioner Lanier Sims, who is not on the board but has been volunteering to assist the shelter and offer free marketing through his company, said he has attended four or five meetings and Wednesday was the first time a quorum has been present. Sims offered to help the board set up webinars so board members who travel can still participate in discussions at meetings.

Ramsey said the shelter is not just behind on utilities and rent, but is behind on paying Lett's salary. "She makes about one-third of what she is supposed to be making," he said. Shelter treasurer Cheryl Heard said payments to Lett are years behind.

Board member John Strauss said, "There's a fundamental problem with the way and premise this whole situation was set up and that cannot be ignored."

Strauss said costs of running the shelter tripled after moving into the facility on Turner Lake Circle from a church basement in Porterdale. The city of Covington granted the Covington Housing Authority more than $1 million to purchase the property and make repairs. When the responsibility was shifted to the Housing Authority, the shelter ran into problems, he said. He said the Housing Authority did not provide the shelter with a lease for a long period of time, resulting in the shelter being unable to obtain grants. In addition, the contractor that was hired was substandard and did not complete repairs adequately, resulting in the shelter having to use its funding to correct that.

The shelter still does not have a lease agreement for this year, 10 months in, Strauss said, adding that he has written a letter to the Housing Authority asking for a lease. By default, the shelter is operating on a month to month extension of the previous lease.

"If we were a regular tenant at arms length transaction with the landlord, we could have sued our landlord five times over," he said.

According to Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Williams, the Housing Authority board did not approve the lease under advise from its attorney, Jim Alexander. Williams said the attorney did not agree with the terms of the lease. The Housing Authority board authorized Alexander to go to the Homeless Shelter board with an amended lease “but nothing was ever brought back to the board for approval,” he said.

At any rate, Hutter said it's time to move on from all those old issues.

"We can live in the past or list the problems we have and address the problems we have, and let's move on," he said.

The board's next meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 12.

The shelter is currently hosting a fundraiser every weekend through Nov. 4. Beginning at 1 p.m., games are available for children and food, such as home-cooked Brunswick stew and fish is available for sale. Also, a maze is open from 8 p.m. to midnight in the yard near the shelter at it 7133 Turner Lake Circle. Tickets to the maze are $8 per person, with all proceeds benefitting the shelter.