Funding for planned senior housing goes to Abingdon group, pending federal OK
By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Board members of the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging did not try to hide their disappointment Friday as they voted unanimously to transfer a prized $1.3 million federal grant to a nonprofit agency in Woodstock.
In doing so, the area agency on aging surrendered officially to financial troubles in its two-year effort to build low-income housing for seniors in Woodstock.
People Incorporated of Virginia, an Abingdon-based nonproft agency with a branch in Woodstock, will be the recipient of the grant if federal officials follow the decision made by the area agency on aging.
Several board members spoke ruefully of giving up the grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the agency's staff had worked hard to obtain.
"Getting a HUD grant approved is a big, big deal," board chairman John Hudson said. "I would have liked to have seen the project move forward."
Robert Kendall praised Jonathan Price, the agency's director of housing development, for landing the grant.
"He acquired that grant in record time, and it took record effort," Kendall said.
The money is to be used to build 11 one-bedroom units for very low-income seniors. The project was part of a renovation of the former Woodstock High School on Court Street.
The agency also was planning to move much of its headquarters from Front Royal to the Woodstock building with the help of a $1.8 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But in early November, Shenandoah County officials received a letter from Cynthia Palmer, acting executive director of the area agency on aging, that the project had succumbed to financial turmoil that has beset the agency since August.
Heavy debt of more than $500,000, a severe cash flow problem, and the costs of defending against lawsuits by former employees made it impossible for the project to continue under the agency. The turmoil began with the dismissals of three of the agency's top executives in September amid disclosures of large numbers of checks made out to vendors that had gone unpaid.
Preliminary steps toward beginning the Woodstock project have added to the agency's financial burden, staff members revealed at Friday's meeting. The agency raised $30,000 to $40,000 in donations but spent about $130,000 to $140,000 on architectural and pre-engineering planning, leaving it with a deficit of $99,000.
Hudson said the agency has contacted People Incorporated about the possibility of regaining some or all of the $99,000, but has yet to receive a reply.
"We will be pursuing getting that back," Hudson said of the $99,000. "There's no promise that will happen."
Hudson said the agency is also strapped for cash in defending itself against lawsuits filed by two of the agency's former executives over the circumstances surrounding their dismissals.
He said he has contacted the localities that provide the agency with annual appropriations from their budgets for an extra infusion of money this year to fend off the lawsuits.
Hudson said representatives from the five counties -- Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick, Page and Clarke -- and the City of Winchester all agreed to consider the request. He said he hopes to receive replies before the end of the year.
The news about the agency's current deficit was better.
Lance Barron, the agency's interim director of finance, reported an operating deficit of about $168,000, a decrease from the roughly $265,000 Hudson said the agency faced "just in vendors' bills" a few months ago.
"It sounds like we moved that deficit down, which I think is significant," he said.
Another glimmer of hope came from news that the agency is closing in on its goal of selling enough raffle tickets to eliminate monthly payments of $640 on a Ford Escape driven by Helen Cockrell, the former executive director who was dismissed in September.
Staff members estimated the agency has no more than 57 tickets remaining of the 300 they hoped to sell in raffling off the SUV. Each ticket costs $100, and staff members estimated the monthly payments could be eliminated with the sale of about 280 tickets.
Hudson said he would ask BB&T bank employees to conduct the raffle drawing to ensure that "from start to finish, it is totally removed from SAAA."
"I think the public wants to see this is a totally independent drawing for the vehicle," he added.