10/31/07 — Lighthouse shelter runs into problems

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Lighthouse shelter runs into problems

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 31, 2007 2:06 PM

Almost a year after The Lighthouse of Wayne County was forced to close the doors to its safehouse, county officials are still working with the state to re-open it.

The problem, explained County Manager Lee Smith, is that once the Lighthouse folded and the county began the process of acquiring the property, he found out that the North Carolina Housing Finance Authority had a lien against it.

"The county does not want to take possession of the property if it has a lien," he said.

The plan, he continued, was for the county to acquire the property and then either lease or deed it over to Wayne Uplift Resources, which has taken over the domestic violence programs formerly offered by the Lighthouse, such as court advocacy programs, support groups and classes in anger management, parenting, abuser treatment and domestic violence empowerment.

That plan, though, is still on hold.

The lien, explained Margaret Matrone, director of government relations and communications for the authority, is the result of a $95,000 deferred loan made to the Lighthouse in 1995 to help it purchase the property for use as a domestic violence shelter.

"As long as the Lighthouse operated the property as a shelter, they would not have to pay back any interest and they would not have to pay back the loan," she said.

Now, though, because the Lighthouse isn't operating the shelter anymore, the authority is working with the county to chart a new course for the property.

"The goal now is to find a way to continue to operate that property as a shelter. And the goal is to transfer the property to the county with some stipulations that that would be the case, but it would not be a loan, it would be a transfer," she said. "Currently we're in negotiations and we're almost there, but it's not final."

She's hopeful that an agreement can be reached within a few weeks -- a development that Wayne Uplift executive director Linda Holden-Cox, would welcome as she noted that there is still an unfortunate need in the county for the shelter to be back up and running.

"There's definitely a need for the shelter," she said, explaining that since the Lighthouse closed, Wayne Uplift has been working with the county Department of Social Services and other community agencies to place victims at other nearby sites.

In the meantime, though, she continued, Wayne Uplift is continuing to make preparations to re-open the safehouse -- lining up financial resources and preparing job descriptions so they can be advertised as soon as possible.

"We want to be sure when we re-open this, that it is secure. We have been taking all the proper steps to be sure that when the doors open, they are open to stay," Ms. Cox said. "We have done what we need to do as far as securing financial resources. We have a plan intact."

To contact Wayne Uplift, residents can call its 24-hour hotline -- 736-1313 for English and 394-1621 for Spanish -- or visit its offices at 719 East Ash Street.

As for the Lighthouse, board member Cindy Sanford said that they are still in process of closing their books and paying down all their debts.

Employees, she explained, have been paid for their time worked, but not their vacation.

"That is settled," she said.

Also paid in full are the $70,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties owed to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, which helped create the initial problem.

Other debts, such as those from their daily bills for things like water and electricity, have been partially forgiven. But with only $2,000 left in the Lighthouse's bank account, she estimated the organization can pay only about 10 percent of those.

Larger debts, however, including lines of credit with BB&T and Wachovia banks, are still unsettled.

Officials with both banks would not comment on the status of those debts, though Mrs. Sanford acknowledged that BB&T is in the process of foreclosing on the former administrative building.

Fortunately, she said that her understanding is that the agency and the board are free of any legal action.

"(A bankruptcy attorney) said that since we're a nonprofit agency, they couldn't go back on the board," Mrs. Sanford said.

She's still hopeful, though, that everything can be settled by the end of the year.