MALONE — ComLinks may be forced to close in a few months if reimbursements the state owes the community-action agency aren’t paid.
Board President Joe Selenski is using his own money to meet payroll and hopes — as some overdue payments continue to trickle in from Albany — that the doors can stay open until its revenue can get stronger.
But if the state money doesn’t come soon or the state doesn’t provide a transition fund to help the agency over its latest rough patch, his Board of Directors is prepared to dissolve ComLinks “this fall or this winter” and find other entities to operate its two remaining programs: Gleaning and Weatherization.
Gleaning Program Director Dick LaVigne agreed to slash his salary between 40 and 50 percent, and the remaining employees agreed to take a 20 percent pay cut by having the office open just four days a week instead of five, Selenski said.
“We’re on an austerity budget. We don’t even have the lights on in the building half the time.”
ComLinks is about $200,000 in debt and has been plagued the past two years by theft, mismanagement and incompetence, as well as shrinking grant funding for its surviving programs and the two low-income-housing complexes it manages.
Selenski said operation of Helen Hill Apartments in Saranac Lake and Windmill Estates in Malone may be turned over to the Franklin County Housing Council, just as several other ComLinks properties were transferred there earlier this year.
Some of the trouble stems from the actions of former Executive Director Nancy Reich, who was accused by a State Comptroller’s Office audit of using more than $100,000 in agency funds for a lavish lifestyle for herself that included Swedish massages, airline flights and purchases of stainless-steel home appliances.
She was fired in July 2010, indicted by a Franklin County grand jury and pleaded guilty to one count of grand larceny in December 2011. She was sentenced to a conditional discharge and ordered to pay $1,500 in restitution to the Comptroller’s Office.
Reich now lives in Montana.
“This is not caused by just one person. There were mistakes along the way made by the board for a long time, and now is the time to catch up,” Selenski said. “There are still opportunities to turn things around.
“The biggest mistake was not firing a couple of administrators, as the audit had suggested,” he said, referring to former Executive Director Brian Cassini and former Chief Financial Officer Brenda Mallette-Glennon.
Cassini was accused of writing a job description that only his wife could fill and of hiring an unqualified person for a program director’s job. He was hired to replace Reich in 2010 but was fired by the board this past March.
“When Brian Cassini was appointed executive director, myself and two others — three of us — were opposed to it, and that was that board’s last big mistake,” Selenski said, adding that administrators can sometimes create even more problems in an attempt “to hide their ineptness.”
Mallette-Glennon was accused of shirking her fiduciary responsibility to the public for not reining in Reich’s spending and for authorizing payments to her without the proper receipts.
She resigned last fall.
Selenski said that some of ComLinks’s existing debt is expected back through the state reimbursements, but about $40,000 of it is owed to local vendors.
At the same time, some state agencies want their money back because service contracts they had with ComLinks dating back to 2008 didn’t get fulfilled under Reich or Cassini.
Selenski said the contract agencies are owed about $100,000 total, and one bill alone is for $22,000.
But ComLinks can’t pay any of it back unless it can increase its income stream, and it can’t do that because the state is not paying the agency what it owes.
“The state is one to four months behind,” Selenski said.
He said the Weatherization Program is making a small profit. That will be turned back in to the help other qualified people get help lowering their utility bills, and about $5,000 a month will be used to pay down some of the outstanding debt.
What adds to the frustration is that the offices that oversee Gleaning and Weatherization are pleased with ComLinks’s progress and recently issued glowing reports that both are operating within their budgets and performing at contracted levels.
Yet there are still worries among some state officials that ComLinks’s financial future is not stable enough to warrant their continued support unless a full-time chief executive officer is hired.
ComLinks hired Bill Kelting as chief financial officer earlier this year to run the day-to-day operation, but “he is phasing himself out,” Selenski said.
“With the state of the financials of the agency, he felt he could turn the duties of the financial officer over to the program directors, and we could hire a part-time chief operating officer instead,” he said.
One or two board members would also be part of the smaller management team as volunteers to work with the part-time person.
“Bill made a three-month plan to go and would no longer be paid at regular, full-time hours. But he is willing to volunteer to oversee the transition to the new person,” the board president said.
However, the state is not in favor of having a part-time person in charge, even though ComLinks has explained it can’t afford to pay the salary such a position requires.
“We’re trying to make this work. We’re trying to make payroll and pay our current bills and our debts,” Selenski said. “But the state is not happy. They don’t think we can run an agency without an executive at the top.
“We believe we can, and we have the faith in our administrator and in our board’s oversight,” he said. “But they’re saying, ‘No. You need to hire a $70,000 CEO.”
Selenski said he contacted the offices of Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) for help with the state reimbursements and staffing demands but has had no response.
The board and state-agency representatives are to meet face to face to work on their issues, he said, and until decisions are made, ComLinks will do what it can to stay afloat.
And for Selenski, that has meant putting up his own funds.
“The only reason I’m still involved and taking this personal financial risk is that we have wonderful employees,” he said. “They’re heroic for working through all of this and hanging in there.
“They are dedicated to helping the community, and yes, they do want to keep their jobs,” he said. “But I feel we owe it to them and to the community to pay our vendors and catch up on our bills.”
Email Denise A. Raymo: