Alamance County’s elected leaders have handed down a final, definitive “no” to a local nonprofit that has repeatedly hit them up for a bailout over the past couple of months.
During a regular, semimonthly meeting on Monday, the county’s board of commissioners voted 4-to-1 against this financial lifeline for Friendship Adult Day Services, a private nonprofit organization that, for decades, has operated a daycare center for elderly and cognitively disabled adults.
The board’s vote followed some two months of pleas from Friendship’s director for a one-time cash contribution to help the organization make ends meet as it struggles to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic and marshal its resources for a much-anticipated relocation to a new county-owned building.
Although Friendship has never previously received any public funds from the county, its daycare had long been a tenant of a county facility along Burlington’s Martin Street. This building’s cramped quarters ultimately inspired the brother of one of Friendship’s deceased clients to donate $3 million for a new county-owned building to house the adult daycare and two other, unrelated programs.
Friendship formally moved into new county-owned digs about three weeks ago. This milestone nevertheless followed a series of pandemic-induced shutdowns had deprived Friendship of the state reimbursements that have traditionally paid its expenses – and which left it on the verge of financial collapse in the months leading up to its grand relocation.
Friendship’s director Connie Morse had originally approached the board of commissioners in the first week of April for $50,000 to cover its operational costs until the usual state reimbursements resumed. A majority of the commissioners balked at this initial request. Even so, a couple of subsequent private donations bought Morse the breathing room she needed to make another pitch to the commissioners later that month – this time, for a reduced sum of $40,000.
Although the commissioners rejected Morse’s second appeal by a margin of 3-to-2, she nevertheless received some encouragement from commissioner Bill Lashley, who hinted that he might reverse his “no” vote once the daycare center is up and running in its new home. In the meantime, the commissioners asked the county’s interim manager Sherry Hook to take a closer look at Friendship’s financials in anticipation of another potential request once the daycare had reopened its doors.
Due to various state regulatory hurdles, it wasn’t until May that Friendship was finally able to move into its new accommodations. The center went on to hold a grand reopening last week that drew a who’s who of local dignitaries to the new building, which is situated near the county’s human services center off of Graham-Hopedale Road.
This festive occasion nevertheless gave way to a much grimmer mood Monday when Morse returned to the commissioners with a request that had been further reduced to $30,000 thanks to private donations.
Commissioners hear unflattering assessment from interim county manager
Before the commissioners heard Morse’s reiterated petition on Monday, they heard back from Hook on the state of Friendship’s financial accounts. During her presentation, the interim county manager acknowledged that Friendship actually had some $80,000 in its reserves when the current fiscal year opened in July of 2021. Hook added that the daycare enjoyed a brief run that summer before rising coronavirus caseloads forced it to close and cut off its state-level subsidies. She argued, however, this setback occurred early enough in the year for Morse to have explored contingencies that could’ve avoided the need for her to come hat in hand to the county.
“By midyear, the agency would have been able to see additional funds would not be available,” Hook assured the commissioners, “and at that point, it was an opportunity for the agency to take fiscal action to make sure there was funding available to begin operations once they were open again.
“So, based on the financial information that was submitted and based only on that,” she added, “staff is not recommending funding at this time.”
In response to Hook’s damning verdict on her fiscal management, Morse reminded the commissioners about the unexpected state regulatory hurdles she faced before the center could reopen in its current location.
“We are fiscally responsible and have always been,” she assured the commissioners. “We pinch every penny until it screams.
“We are in a position now that we need some extra injection of funding to remain solvent,” Morse added. “We probably have enough money left to pay our folks to the end of this month and we will not get our next reimbursement at the middle or end of the next month.”
Commissioner Pam Thompson still supports county funding for the adult daycare program
Morse’s defense seemed cogent enough to commissioner Pam Thompson, who has consistently supported Friendship’s request for a bailout since April.
“From the very beginning, I’ve supported this agency because I know the great work that they do. This is just a real cluster, and it’s real disappointing that this has happened. There was no misappropriated funds. There was no embezzlement. There were no laws broken. This is just another Covid victim.”
– County commissioner Pam Thompson
“From the very beginning, I’ve supported this agency because I know the great work that they do,” Thompson told her fellow commissioners on Monday. “This is just a real cluster, and it’s real disappointing that this has happened. There was no misappropriated funds. There was no embezzlement. There were no laws broken. This is just another Covid victim.”
The center’s director nevertheless failed to persuade Lashley to loosen his own hold on the public purse strings.
“I sympathize with the challenges and the difficulties of running a nonprofit,” Lashley told the rest of the board. “But how I started off with this was by asking a simple question: what is the fundamental purpose of county government?…This is just one of those things I just don’t believe that I as a county commissioner am supposed to do. I don’t believe the taxpayers want me to take care of nonprofits.”
The rest of the board seemed to concur with Lashley’s assessment of their fiduciary obligations. That said, commissioner Craig Turner still saw a glimmer of hope for the center in a revolving loan program that the county had previously set up in order to assist small businesses that had suffered in the coronavirus pandemic. Turner insisted that this program, which had been financed with federal pandemic relief funds, may also be a viable option for Friendship Adult Day Services.
“That would be a great resource for this group,” he added. “So, we can get behind this group and do it in a way that we don’t have to use taxpayer funds.”
Turner’s Hail Mary was later picked up by Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. Carter pointed out that a representative of the revolving loan program recently informed him that Morse had already inquired about this option – only to bow out when it occurred to her that she may not be able to repay the loan. Carter nevertheless offered a more optimistic assessment of Friendship’s ability to afford the program’s potential largesse of up to $25,000.
“I think you might want to look at your numbers,” he told the center’s director, “and rethink your ability to actually repay it.”
Yet, in the end, it was John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who enunciated what would become the majority view on Morse’s request for a bailout.
Paisley, who had previously been critical of the proposed bailout, all but accused Morse of frittering away Friendship’s reserves after he heard the interim county manager’s report. The board’s chairman proceeded to urge his colleagues to reject the organization’s request once and for all.
“I’m going to move at this point that we deny any further funds to Friendship Adult Day Services, Inc,” he added ahead of the 4-to-1 – from which only Thompson dissented,
Morse, for her part, replied to this withering denial with what may have seemed like an unexpected aplomb.
“I thank you for making it official,” she told the commissioners, “that this is the end of us going to the county to request funds.”