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News REACH closes its doors in Jackson County

The Executive Director of Macon County’s R.E.A.C.H., Ann Van Harlingen, has been working with partner agencies in Jackson and Macon counties to ensure the void left by the Jackson County’s R.E.A.C.H. office closing is filled.Macon County’s REACH office stepping up to fill void after closing

Up until last week, REACH of Jackson County served victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in the county for 33 years, and offered 10 distinct services to clients; including emergency shelter for victims, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) approved transitional housing for up to three years, counseling and legal advocacy, and assistance with work readiness and life skills. Citing financial difficulties, the organization was forced to close its doors. Jackson County victims are now being directed to the Macon County REACH Office.

According to board members with the organization, REACH’s financial situation is currently being assessed and although the shelter is currently closed, it may not be permanent and other solutions are being considered.

Tommy Dennison, a sitting board member for the temporarily extinct non-profit group that sought to end domestic violence and sexual assault in Jackson County, issued a press release about their closing on Sunday, Feb. 12. “Our first concern is for women facing crisis in Jackson County,” reads the press release. “The Board of R.E.A.C.H. of Jackson County is heartened that arrangements have been made by Robert Cochran of Jackson County DSS and R.E.A.C.H. of Macon County to provide vital services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” continued Dennison. Dennison cited “uncertainty preregarding our financial issues,” as the main reason for closing down. “This was a very difficult decision for the Board to make.

Until further notice REACH of Jackson County will be closed and cannot accept any financial donations. We appreciate the community’s continued support and will update you as we have more information,” said Dennison, speaking on behalf of Jackson County REACH

Dennison said he could not comment any further about the situation until a later date, when he will have more information to disclose. Jackson’s REACH board is telling county residents that need emergency assistance to call 911, and to rely predominantly on Macon County’s R.E.A.C.H to account for their absence.

Robert Cochran, the director of Jackson County’s Department of Social Services, said his staff will provide one social worker to assist Macon County’s REACH and other nearby agencies that are sure to see increased workloads in the upcoming weeks due to the void left by the closing.

The news seemed to catch Jackson County officials by surprise. “We knew they were having some financial trouble, but I don’t think we knew it was that severe,” said Cochran. “It’s unfortunate, but I think we have already seen some groups respond positively. Our department has arranged a way to provide direct services with Macon County’s REACH and a few other agencies in the region, but from what I understand their organization is taking the lead,” said Cochran.

Macon County’s REACH will now answer Jackson County’s hotline and provide other services, including temporary housing for clients, according to Cochran.

 to Cochran, the news of the organization’s closing caught Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe off guard. “It was a surprise to all of us,” said Ashe. “It’s a shame it has gotten to this point because it is a resource we used so frequently.”

Ashe noted that at this time, no one has asked the Sheriff’s office to investigate whether or not any criminal activity led to the shelter’s closing, but he does hope a long term resolution is reached soon.

On Friday, Jackson County Commissioner Chairman, Walter Debnam, stated that he was completely caught off guard by the shelter’s closing. “I didn’t learn about it until after the fact,” said Debnam. “We still are not sure why and we are finding information out as we go.”

According to Debnam, County officials spent much of Friday scrambling to find a way to fill the void left by REACH’s closing. “Right now we are just trying to figure out a plan to make sure anyone who needs assistance can get it right away,” he said. “We are working with the Sheriff’s Office and social services to evaluate which facilities we can use to continue providing the same assistance REACH has.”

Debnam also said that if the county was made aware of the situation prior to the closing, a solution may have been put together to prevent it from happening. “I can’t speculate about what we [County Commissioners] would have done,” said Debnam. “But I am certain we would have entertained the idea of a conversation to see what we could do to help.”

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said he was taken aback by the suddenness of last week’s unfolding of events as well. “Things have happened so suddenly that I have not had an opportunity to talk with the Commissioners,” said Wooten last Friday, Feb. 10.

Wooten added that a group of agencies met last Friday afternoon to discuss a shortterm solution to remedy the closing, and would discuss long-term arrangements at some point in March. “It’s too early to know if REACH will recover, reorganize, or return in its past form or a new form,” said Wooten. “We must provide support to persons experiencing domestic violence. I’m confident that we will identify short-term solutions and then begin immediately discussing how the services that REACH provided will be offered on a long-term basis. I’m confident that the current REACH board has taken action to ensure their current clients are being served as well as those who were receiving ongoing support. Fortunately, there are some really strong REACH organizations in the surrounding counties and I’m sure they will assist in this transition period. I’m told there has been a great deal of cooperation between counties in the past,” he said.

Wooten went on to say that based on what he knows, their local REACH board had no other option but to shut down because of a shortfall of funds. As a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, they relied heavily on donations for support.

“I am really encouraged by the responses of other organizations in the region,” said Wooten after the organization shut its doors. Macon County’s REACH Director, Ann Van Harlingen, called Wooten last Friday, Feb. 10, to discuss their willingness to take on more duties in response to the closing. “I was very pleased with what she told me, because we were worried,” he said.

Wooten anticipates for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners to hear from Jackson’s REACH board members in March. “I don’t think they are ready to speak with us just yet, because everything has happened so quickly,” said Wooten. “We will probably get to hear from them in March, and I think our Commissioners deserve to hear from them,” he said.

Jackson County has provided their local REACH organization with a $35,000 lineitem for operational expenditures since 2007-2008. The funds were included in Jackson County’s general fund budget and were allocated out to support the organization’s operational expenses. Jackson County Commissioners will discuss future solutions and problems pertaining to the closing at their next scheduled meeting on Feb. 20.

The 2010 audit report that delved into the finances of Jackson County’s REACH revealed some troubling financial problems. Their HUD service, subsidized living for up to three years, was not bringing in enough revenue to support the program and auditors were concerned it would cause the organization problems if it was not fixed.

The audit report was conducted by Painter, Russell and Associates; a firm based out of Asheville, North Carolina. They released their financial assessment into the non-profit organization in January of 2011.”As discussed in Note 13, certain conditions indicate that the Organization may be unable to continue as a going concern,” states the report. “The Organization incurred a decrease in net assets of $114,058 for the year ended June 30, 2010. The Organization had current assets of $60,0696 and current liabilities of $134,057. In addition, the amount of current assets is not sufficient to meet its temporarily restricted obligations of $94,445. These conditions make it uncertain as to whether the Organization will be able to continue as a going concern,” concluded the financial audit report.

The auditors did say that REACH had eliminated unnecessary staff, made reductions in its operating budget, and increased fund-raising efforts to reduce their debt payments.

Obviously, those efforts proved to be futile. The report showed that REACH was in default on a loan owed to the North Carolina Housing and Finance Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The audit report revealed that the organization’s long term debt was $674,808, mostly attributed to the USDA Rural Development Loan used to finance Jackson County’s REACH Village developments, a complex utilized to house their clients. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Internal Revenue Service has placed a lien on all REACH property in Jackson County, but no one associated with the organization could respond to those reports at this time.

Macon County stepping up to fill the void

REACH of Macon County immediately stepped in after getting word about the closing of their partner organization, said Executive Director Ann Van Harlingen. “Jackson County had someone to answer the phones and assist anyone coming into the shelter up until we took over on Friday afternoon,” said Van Harlingen. “The important thing at this time is to make sure that anyone needing assistance receives it right away.”

Macon County's branch of REACH, which first opened in 1987 as an outreach to the Jackson County shelter before branching off to form their own shelter in 1990, has a staff of about 15 paid employees and numerous volunteers who are fully prepared to take over any cases, according to Van Harlingen. Their organization offers the same services as Jackson County as well, she said.

Van Harlingen, who first began volunteering at the Macon County shelter in 1994, noted that phone lines for the Jackson County office have already been forwarded to Macon. Macon County REACH employees have already appeared in court with victims from Jackson County.

“We are adequately prepared and committed to providing these services,” said Van Harlingen. “Our sister agencies and partner agencies are also committed to stepping up to the plate and making sure that no woman or child suffering from domestic or sexual abuse have to go without help.”

Van Harlingen noted that sister agencies (other domestic violence outreach services) located in surrounding counties, as well as partner agencies (social services and law enforcement) have all extended their support and offered any help they can during this time to make sure that the services, which have been provided by Jackson County’s REACH office for over three decades, will continue to be available to all residents in need.

Although the decrease in funding that led to the closing of Jackson County’s REACH has also affected Macon County’s REACH, Van Harlingen noted that where their organization has seen funding cuts during the budget crunch, the community at large has stepped up to offset those reductions.

“We have also experienced a decrease in funding through grants that we have counted on to stay open,” said Van Harlingen. “And during a time where funding is down, the need for the services we provide has increased. We have been fortunate in the fact that we have seen support from our partner agencies and the community to make up for the cuts at the state level,” she said.

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland stated that the closing of Jackson County’s REACH office is disheartening and added that his department will do everything possible to help fill the void left by Jackson’s closing.

“I think the ladies at REACH of Macon County are committed to their cases,” said Holland. “I am confident they will do their best to step up and make sure that anyone wanting help will get the assistance they need.” Anyone seeking assistance should immediately call 911 or contact REACH of Macon County at 828.369.5544.

After 33 years of service to Jackson County, R.E.A.C.H. was forced to close its doors due to financial problems last week. The organization defaulted on two loans, and also has a substantial amount of debt with the I.R.S. The closing took some Jackson County officials by surprise, and the Internal Revenue Service placed a lien on all of the non-profit group’s property in response to their financial meltdown.

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