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News REACH of Jackson County closes for good

REACH of Macon County gets funding match from Jackson Commissioners.

Nearly three months after REACH of Jackson County shut its doors, Jackson’s Board of Commissioners continued the discussion of the implosion.

Just before REACH closed on Feb. 9, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) put a lien on all of the organization’s property in Jackson County. The IRS did so in response to REACH’s failure to pay employee and employer payroll taxes dating back several years.

Immediately after REACH closed its doors in Jackson County, the Macon County REACH office stepped in to fill the void.

REACH of Macon County immediately began answering the crisis hotline for its partner organization, and began executing a plan to ensure that anyone seeking assistance was able to get it.

Macon County’s branch of REACH, which first opened in 1987 as an outreach to the Jackson County shelter before branching off to form its own shelter in 1990, has a staff of about 15 (and growing) paid employees and numerous volunteers who were fully prepared to take over any cases, said Macon shelter Executive Director Ann Van Harlingen in February.

In order to be able to meet the increase in demand for domestic violence assistance caused by the closing of Jackson County's shelter, the Macon County office has begun using its financial reserve. Representatives from Macon County approached Jackson County commissioners in hopes of receiving financial support to keep the budget in control.

Commissioners unanimously approved a funding match of $14,000. “REACH of Macon County asked for $14,000 which represented the local match associated with State grants they have received to provide services in Jackson County through June 30, 2012,” explained Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

According to Andrea Anderson, Service Director for Macon County’s REACH, the funding match will go to cover the operational costs associated with providing services in Jackson County. “We have worked to keep donations and community contributions from Macon County separate from those for Jackson,” said Anderson. “We are not using funds intended for the Macon shelter to expand our services to Jackson. The funding match from the commissioners will go toward office space, court advocacy outreach, and other operational expenses for the Jackson operation.”

To best serve victims in both counties, REACH has expanded their staff. “We are currently operating out of the Department of Social Service office in Jackson County and have staff there constantly offering services,” said Anderson. “I think there is a misconception that victims in Jackson would have to come to Macon to receive services, and that certainly is not the case.”

Anderson noted that the next step for Macon's office is to identify office space in Jackson, which she anticipates will be done in the next few weeks. After that, Macon’s office plans to work with Jackson County officials to find possible locations for temporary shelter for victims.

During the April meeting of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, Wooten informed the board that a long term solution needs to be identified to best serve victims in the county. “In discussing the shelter issue with Macon representatives, I understand a few clients have refused the offer to locate them in a shelter outside of Jackson County,” said Wooten. “This is certainly understandable as a family would want the least amount of disruptions as possible. Relocating to another county and possibly to another school system is a challenge. I have told the Macon representatives that I would very much like to work with them to identify a potential location in Jackson County for a shelter and they are very receptive to this idea. I have also told the commissioners about this idea and they also are supportive.”

In a month and half period after the Jackson office closed, Macon representatives provided services to 32 unduplicated victims. The largest area of need thus far has been the need to offer court advocacy in Jackson County. So far, there have been 80 instances where the shelter’s court advocate has appeared with a victim in court; 119 information or referrals have been given; and 14 hotline calls have been answered.

Ultimately the mishandling of the organization’s finances led to its downfall. Two REACH staff members were fired earlier in February, before news of the organization’s demise went public. Finance director Janice Mason and REACH Director Kim Roberts-Fer were let go. Roberts-Fer falsely told REACH board members that she had worked out a plan to repay all of their debts during a January board meeting, but apparently no payment plan was enacted, according to REACH board members.

The organization owed approximately $81,000 in back taxes to the IRS. Another outstanding debt payment accrued as a result of the nonprofit’s failure to make their mortgage payments on an apartment facility used to shelter victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, known as the REACH Village.

Wooten informed Jackson commissioners on Feb. 20 that Mountain Projects had agreed to purchase the REACH Village and that a large portion of that money would go towards paying off REACH’s past due rents to the USDA. Mountain Projects was founded in 1965 as a Community Action Agency. The organization provides vital services to the elderly, disadvantaged and general public in Western North Carolina.

The closing on the transaction was finalized on Feb. 22. According to a REACH board member, the organization should pay a nominal amount back to the USDA in the debt resettlement agreement, which is good news for a closed non-profit group with few assets and many liabilities on their books.

According to Wooten, it is unlikely that REACH of Jackson County will ever reopen. As a consequence of the organization’s debt, REACH of Jackson County will not be able to apply for government grants for three years. Government dollars make up approximately 80 percent of the non-profit organization’s budget.

“As things now stand, I do not believe REACH of Jackson County can re-open,” said Wooten. “We understand because of their default on the federal loan they either have been or will be placed on a list that prohibits future federal support and I understand this same action may be applicable to state funds. At this point, there has been no request for additional operating funds for re-opening REACH of Jackson County.”

According to Chairman of Reach’s Board of Directors Rich Peoples, REACH of Jackson County filed for dissolution with the Secretary of State of North Carolina on April 24. “Corporate dissolution means that the corporation can conduct no business other than the orderly liquidation of assets and the payment of obligations,” said Peoples. “All known creditors (including former employees) have been notified to provide a claim to REACH of Jackson County. Efforts are under way to sell the assets of the corporation. When the assets have been sold, and creditors have been paid, any residual funds will be provided to a non-profit corporation to be determined at that time.”

Although no operating funds have been requested, Peoples did request $2,000 from commissioners to assist with closing out the books. “Rich Peoples asked the county to provide financial support to engage their CPA firm to bring their books and records current to provide reliable information for making decisions on how to satisfy any outstanding obligations,” said Wooten. “There are no employees remaining at REACH of Jackson to do this work and their auditors had reviewed the accounts through June 30, 2011, so they are probably the most qualified party to complete this task.”

Commissioners tabled the discussion after expressing concern that financial assistance from the county may be better spent to help other areas of REACH. “The request was tabled to allow the commissioners more time to evaluate the request and to allow the county attorney to assess the situation and determine if the county could in anyway be brought into any actions against REACH if additional funding was provided,” said Wooten. “We understand there may be judgments and other claims against REACH; consequently, funds flowing into REACH may be taken for these claims and not be available for their intended purpose.”

According to Peoples, the current board of directors for REACH of Jackson County has no plans to provide domestic violence assistance in the county. “The board of REACH of a Jackson County has no future role in domestic violence or sexual assault,” he said. “The sole duty of the board is the orderly liquidation of assets and the payment of obligations. Questions regarding shelter operations need to be directed to other organizations. REACH of Jackson County will have no continued existence after the completion of the items discussed.”

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