MALONE — ComLinks will remain open and re-evaluate itself month to month, after lengthy discussions with its partner agencies this week.
Board President Joe Selenski said the Board of Directors met with representatives from the State Department of State and Community Services Block Grant to review the community-action agency’s status.
The discussions ended with positive results, he said. That includes the ability to hire a receptionist/intake specialist to increase the level and quality of service for clients, using existing funds available by not having a chief administrator.
ComLinks has been without an executive director since March, when the board fired Brian Cassini. That happened about 18 months after the July 2010 termination of Nancy Reich, the former executive director who pleaded guilty in December 2011 to grand larceny.
She was accused on a 2010 State Comptroller’s Office audit of misusing more than $100,000 in grant funding to pay for an extravagant lifestyle for herself that included spa treatments, wine, groceries and yearly memberships to the Malone Golf Club.
Reich, who now lives in Montana, was sentenced to a conditional discharge and ordered to repay $1,500 in restitution.
Since then, officials have struggled to learn just how much money is missing, a figure Selenski admits might never be determined.
He said ComLinks is about $200,000 in debt, which includes $40,000 owed to local vendors. Some of that will come back in reimbursements.
At the same time, ComLinks leaders have been trying to pay back about $100,000 to contract agencies that didn’t get the services they expected.
ComLinks manages two low-income housing units: Helen Hill Apartments in Saranac Lake and Windmill Estates in Malone. Running those operations costs between $30,000 and $40,000 in maintenance and upkeep.
That makes it a challenge every month to meet current agency bills and payroll — so much so that Selenski has been using his own money to pay employees during the cash-flow shortage.
The board was originally meeting this week to set up a possible timetable to close ComLinks down and slide its remaining programs to other
agencies to oversee.
But discussions with state-agency officials offered a reprieve, even if it’s temporary, Selenski said.
He said Weatherization Program funding will renew for another year in October and will be available “as long as we remain in operations or until we cease operations.
“(Block Grant personnel) reiterated they are behind us 100 percent,” Selenski said. “We were assured CSBG will support us even if more programming is lost in the future.”
The Department of State has no transitional funding available to cover the lag time in state reimbursements but offered suggestions to find draw-down alternatives to try.
“We will look into better elected-official alliances to ensure we receive our funding at least as quickly as other agencies,” Selenski said.
“We will also look at corporate sponsorships, corporate draw-down loans without liability, targeted fundraising opportunities increasing United Way involvement, Community Action national-headquarters involvement and resources.”
The board president said Chief Operating Officer Bill Kelting outlined his plan to streamline the existing operation under an austerity budget, as well as his exit strategy for the next three months.
Kelting is leaving ComLinks but will volunteer his time during a transition that will give the program directors responsibilities for their operations.
Among other changes, Selenski said, “we no longer transfer funding from one department to another. Each program stands on its own budget restraints and provisions.”
The Weatherization Program, along with its Neighborhood Revitalization work, is operating within its budget, as are the Gleaning Program and its off-shoot operations, which include the community garden, harvest kitchen, food pantry and pantry deliveries and backpack program.
“We have in place all austerity measures possible, and the possibility of leasing office space or combining offices into our gleaning site are also still in consideration,” Selenski said. “Any non-restricted funding will be used for settling past billings.”
These combined factors and pledges of support from the partner agencies led to the board deciding not to close Comlinks just yet.
But that could still happen.
“We are hoping for answers to the state’s late payments and our lack of foundational funding through the investigation of our state partners’ suggestions,” Selenski said. “If we find answers, this month-to-month evaluation will be relaxed and considered every six months, then yearly.
“For now, we continue improving and operating with more and more accountability until we can catch up on even more past debt and expenses,” he said, adding that clearing up the past leads to a bright future.
He said ComLinks may look to “provide possible new and different services than in the past but that are helpful, worthwhile services that help those in dire need and poverty.”
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