11/29/06 — Next steps planned for Lighthouse

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Next steps planned for Lighthouse

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 29, 2006 1:46 PM

The news that The Lighthouse of Wayne County closed its doors Tuesday caught many of the organization's funders by surprise and might worsen the domestic violence shelter's already precarious financial condition.

The Lighthouse Board of Directors has not released a budget or any other fiscal information, but in its statement Tuesday, the organization's uncertain financial outlook was cited as the reason for closing.

The problems began earlier this year when it was discovered that there were unpaid payroll taxes in recent years.

The amount of those back taxes has not been released, but board member Cindy Sanford said the money has been paid and that the organization is working with the IRS on a payment schedule for the penalties and interest charges.

That discovery, though, led to the closing of The Lighthouse's administrative offices and thrift store for two weeks in mid-October and an organizational restructuring that began with the resignation of executive director Cheryl Seronick on Oct. 19.

That plan is still being ironed out.

"We're still investigating," Mrs. Sanford said. "Operations will have to change, but I certainly hope The Lighthouse will be able to reopen.

"It's so unfortunate that it's a service the county needs, but it is. We have a lot of people who are working to help us. Nobody wants to see us fail."

One of those people who has been volunteering to help the organization is former Goldsboro city manager Richard Slozak.

He thinks closing the safehouse was really the board's only option.

"They need to know the depth and the breadth of their financial situation, and I think it was difficult to do that while dealing with the day-to-day operations," Slozak said.

Part of the problem, he noted, is that at least four of the board's nine members have joined only in the last year.

"They've got an excellent board now, but it's difficult to keep up with operations and find out what the problems are, especially since they all work," Slozak said. "I think this is a step in the right direction. I think the people there are trying to be responsible for what's going on."

Unfortunately, he continued, he doesn't think the organization will be able to reopen without making some changes.

"They need to find out first how bad the problem is and how to solve it. Then they'll have to look at their options, which may range in scope from closing to reopening with a change in scope.

"I'm not familiar with all their problems, and I haven't seen their books, but from what I understand, I don't think they'll be able to reopen with the broad scope they have now."

The organization's problems, though, have led The Lighthouse's funders to begin examining how their money is being spent.

Funding from the United Way of Wayne County was already withheld in November and now, director Steve Parr said, December's likely will be as well.

"We do not have a plan or a budget (from The Lighthouse)," Parr said.

Because of the organization's problems, he explained, a new plan will be necessary in order for it to receive any future funding.

The United Way's new fiscal year will begin in January. At that point, it will make its next round of funding decisions. If The Lighthouse has a new plan by then, he continued, it will be treated like any other organization.

"We're just going to see what plan they come forward with and just like any other funding request, we'll be anxious to see what they present to us," Parr said. "I think they obviously have challenges they have to address. We have to put our faith that the board volunteers are making the best decisions for the long term future of the organization.

"Right now we're just going to have to wait and see."

Other funders also are stuck in a wait-and-see mode.

Michael Leach, an emergency shelter grant program coordinator in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Office of Economic Opportunity, said they had not received any prior notification of The Lighthouse closing and that the future of its $10,651 grant would depend on when it reopens.

"As I understand it, they have to be operable at least six consecutive months of the fiscal year," he said. "If they're not operating they would have to reimburse the state (the $2,252 already spent)."

The N.C. Governor's Crime Commission is another agency waiting to see whether The Lighthouse will reopen.

It is scheduled to provide about $52,000 in reimbursement grants over the next two years. So far, about $10,000 has been released, but the money is dependent on The Lighthouse matching 20 percent.

"We know it's the nature of nonprofits to have some turmoil so we're not surprised by this. We want them to spend the money," Barry Bryant, a victims program planner said. "We don't want to send it back to Washington (D.C.). If they're not going to spend their money, though, we'll offer it to another agency.

"But we don't want to jump the gun."

So for now, he continued, the commission will wait and see how things go. He also noted that The Lighthouse's problems should not affect any other county grants.

"Our biggest concern is related to the lack of services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault," Bryant said.

Women and families at the safehouse when it closed Tuesday morning were taken to shelters in surrounding counties and people needing such services in the future should call the county Department of Social Services -- at least until a more permanent solution can be put in place.

Right now, Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said, social services and Eastpointe Mental Health have agreed to assist the county in placing victims in nearby shelters. He also said that the $30,000 earmarked by the county for The Lighthouse has not been released yet.

"Our main interest in Lighthouse is the safehouse for domestic violence victims," Smith said. "That is our No. 1 priority and we just want to make sure nobody falls between the cracks.

"We're doing something basically on a temporary basis until we can figure out something more permanent. We want to make sure nobody is in harm's way and that we get them someplace safe."