Open Pantry pins funding hopes on state, not city
|By G. Michael Dobbs|
SPRINGFIELD No meetings with Finance Control Board member James Morton to discuss the budget crisis facing Open Pantry Community Services have yet been scheduled by press time, according to Open Pantry Executive Director Kevin Noonan.
The (FCB) passed a motion last week to appoint Morton to work with city officials and Noonan to come up with possible ways to help the private nonprofit after Noonan appeared at the June 23 meeting appealing for help.
The FCB members contended the board could not help a private organization with either direct funding or a loan, although Noonan contested that interpretation of the board's powers. He explained to Reminder Publications that while there is an anti-aid amendment in the legislation that created the board, it can allocate funds to organizations whose programs have a public purpose. He said the FCB allowed $2 million to be allocated to the Friends of the Homeless in 2007.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said granting Noonan's request would set a precedent.
"Anyone could come to the Control Board's door," Sarno said.
Noonan said that he and his staff attending the FCB meeting were shocked when they heard Geraldine McCafferty, the city's deputy director of Homeless and Special Needs Housing, speak about other agencies that could take over some of the services provided by Open Pantry should it fail in finding the funding it need.
McCafferty said that the Friends of the Homeless could expand its meal program to include those served by Loaves and Fishes, while Springfield Partners for Community Action (SPCA) has noted a willingness to take on the agency's food pantry program.
McCafferty said she has had "concerns about the [agency's] financial stability and ability to operate long-term."
"They have had a number of financial crisis over the past few years," she added.
After a previous FCB meeting, McCafferty said she was asked by FCB Executive Director Steve Lisauskas to look for other groups that could supply the services of the Open Pantry.
If the Open Pantry cannot solve its financial difficulties and is forced to cut the meals program and the food pantry services, McCafferty said the city might then go through a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to fund those programs. She said the Open Pantry would be welcomed to apply.
Noonan said a RFP procedure would take months.
He said the city's nonprofit social service agencies "should stand and fight in solidarity," and called what the city is doing "an attempt to divide and conquer."
Noonan isn't a stranger to controversy. He staged a hunger strike during the Albano Administration, took a lot of criticism for allowing the Tent City to stay on Open Pantry property and clashed with former Mayor Charles Ryan over the city's new plan to address homelessness.
Noonan objected to what he has called a "one-stop" approach to homelessness services and has insisted the city needs an additional temporary shelter. The Open Pantry was operating that shelter, The Warming Place, with state funds until the Ryan Administration required the shelter to vacate its location at the former York Street Jail. The state contract for the services was transferred to the Friends of the Homeless which added additional shelter beds, although did not provide the number the Warming Place had.
The loss of funds coupled with rising costs triggered a short fall that has endangered the agency. Noonan has responded by seeking re-instatement of state aid through a line item in the budget and by putting the agency's building up for sale. Open Pantry employees have loaned the agency $84,000 in order for it to keep operating all of its programs.
Although the funding has passed the House, it didn't in the Senate and the measure will be decided by a conference committee.
Noonan said the agency "needs money in a hurry." The Open Pantry's state contracts for some of its programs will renew mid-July and will bring in a flow of much needed cash. Although that funding won't solve the larger financial concern.
The Open Pantry has played a significant role in providing services for the city's poor through its various programs. Last year the agency supplied groceries for more than 27,235 people, prepared 102,232 meals, not including over 2,400 holiday meals, provided case management for 1,269 homeless people and housed 42 teen mothers with 50 children and 29 families with nearly 70 children. Another program gave 16 women sober housing.
McCafferty questioned why the loss of the Warming Place contract should cause the agency's financial problems.
"The city funds them and continues at level rates as the grants are level-funded. The nature of a request for general city funds needs more transparency," she said.
Noonan said that on two occasions he has explained to McCafferty how the agency found itself with a shortfall.
McCafferty cited the current administration's aid in relocating the food pantry operation from the Old First Church as evidence of the city's good will. McCafferty said she asked Springfield Partners for Community Action to consider supplying space to the Open Pantry on the second floor of the building it which is houses its day care facility on State Street.
McCafferty said, "That relationship fell apart rather quickly." She was referring to a problem with the two agencies reaching an accord concerning rent.
Noonan said at first the agency offered the space for free, then wanted $5,000 a month rent and then requested $1,500. Noonan offered SPCA a check for $15,000 donated by the Old First Church, but SPCA returned it.
The Open Pantry had to pay for $9,600 in repairs to meet the city's building code, but SPCA would not reimburse the agency for the expense, according to the agency's board meeting minutes from April 29.
To solve the dispute concerning the rent, McCafferty said the city gave SPCA $10,000 in Community development Block Grant funds as compensation. SPCA Executive Director Paul Bailey said the funding was to pay for the repairs to the building, although Noonan said the Open Pantry had already paid for the repairs.
Noonan said the $10,000 city payment to SPCA secures the rent in the location until July 2009. Bailey did say that while "the Open Pantry hadn't been able to meet its rent obligations" the two agencies are now "in agreement."
McCafferty said she has been talking with Bailey since April about the possibility of SPCA taking over the food pantry operation. Bailey said they have had one conversation and emphasized that while he has been willing to talk about assuming the food pantry program he has also been "mindful and fair to the Open Pantry as well."
His agency would have "an interest only if they're not able to [continue]."
Bailey added, "I haven't brought it [the food pantry program] to the board."
In the April 29 minutes, though, "P. Bailey reported that he was asked if Springfield Partners would consider taking over the Open Pantry food distribution operation. [Board member] G. Bruce stated that, should we take this on, the city should fund it for one year. P. Bailey suggested that the [board] president appoint an Ad hoc Committee to work with him on the Open Pantry matter."
Noonan's history of speaking his mind has cost him in some circles.
"He'll tell you himself that he can be difficult at times," Mayor Domenic Sarno said. "Kevin's been involved [in the new homelessness plan.] I respect what they do. I've tried to help out Kevin in a number of situations."
Sarno described Noonan as a friend.
Noonan said he has had a "cordial" relationship with Sarno as a city councilor and has met once with him to discuss issues as mayor. Noonan said he tried to fulfill the administration's request to move the Loaves and Fishes meal program from Christ Church Cathedral to the South Church, but wasn't able to make the move possible.
Noonan called the motives behind the proposed move as potentially "classist and racist."
Seeing what happened at the FCB meeting, Noonan said, "Our focus and our hope is on the state budget process."
He also hopes the public that has supported the Open Pantry in the past will respond once again with donations. Checks can be made out to Open Pantry Community Services and sent to P.O. Box 5127, Springfield, MA 01101.