Cortland's Senior Center uses taxpayer money ... but don’t ask how they spend your levy dollars.
By ED RUNYAN
Cyndie Hammers says she loves the Cortland SCOPE senior citizen center, where she enjoys billiards, dancing and informational sessions.
But the center’s move to a larger location on North Bank Street about two years ago presented some challenges. The new facility had only one restroom, and it was not handicap-accessible.
“A large percentage of people need that accessibility,” said Hammers, 61, of Southington, contending that there have been times when seniors have failed to make it to the restroom in time, resulting in an embarrassing “accident.”
Hammers and other seniors raised questions about the restroom to the Cortland center’s manager, but it “fell on deaf ears,” she said.
Hammers, who was the elected fiscal officer for Union Township near New Castle, Pa., 20 years ago, wrote a letter Jan. 19 to SCOPE, asking for financial information about SCOPE and minutes of recent meetings.
SCOPE receives on average about $700,000 per year from the Trumbull County Seniors levy. Those tax funds, depending on the year, can constitute half of SCOPE’s annual spending. Add to that SCOPE’s income from state and federal agencies, and SCOPE receives about $1.3 million per year from taxpayers.
On Jan. 30, having not yet heard back, Hammers and five other seniors went to the SCOPE board meeting at the Warren SCOPE center.
They were denied entry.
No meeting access. No financial access. No meeting minutes.
What they did get was a two-hour meeting with SCOPE’s executive director, Janet Schweitzer.
But Hammers said that wasn’t enough for an agency that receives a third of the $2.3 million the senior levy generates each year from Trumbull taxpayers. Since 2007, SCOPE has received $2.7 million from that levy — all out of public purview, except for the scant nonprofit Form 990s the federal government requires.
Get used to it.
SCOPE, which has existed for 50 years, is officially a private, nonprofit corporation and, therefore, exempt from the public-meetings law.
The idea that private corporations should control significant amounts of taxpayer money is growing under Gov. John Kasich, a former Wall Street executive.
Kasich and the Ohio Legislature last year created the nonprofit corporation JobsOhio to take over some functions of the Ohio Department of Development. JobsOhio will use about $800 million in annual state liquor profits to fund its operations.
“We were definitely surprised,” Hammers said of SCOPE’s unwillingness to allow public access.
“As SCOPE members, we felt we had a right to voice our complaints.”
Hammers said she never imagined SCOPE wouldn’t have to tell the public how it spends that money.
At that January meeting, Hammers and her group of six seniors waited in the lobby for an hour while the 18-member SCOPE board had its meeting.
Afterward, Schweitzer talked with Hammer’s group for two hours. The board members had left the building.
A month later, at a combined 50th anniversary celebration and board meeting, Hammers and other seniors showed up again. This time, James McFarland, a board member, invited the group to talk to him and about six other board members.
Board member Garland Bradshaw, in a phone interview, said he and Schweitzer asked the board during the January meeting whether it wanted to allow Hammers and the group into the meeting. The board decided against it because the group had not asked in advance to address the board, Bradshaw said, and the board had a legal opinion regarding SCOPE’s being exempt from the public-meetings law.
David Marburger, an Ohio attorney specializing in public records who also represents The Vindicator, said Ohio Supreme Court decisions since 2005 have allowed SCOPE and other private, nonprofit organizations, such as private prisons, to operate with less oversight than government bodies, which reduces accountability to the public.
Organizations such as SCOPE exist primarily to provide services that the government wants to provide, but the employees providing them are not government employees, Marburger said. That typically reduces the cost of providing the services.
But it also reduces public knowledge.
“The nonprofits have only a fraction of the accountability the government would have if it were providing the services,” Marburger said.
In the weeks since the meeting, Schweitzer had SCOPE maintenance workers upgrade an unused toilet in another part of the Cortland building. Now there are two restrooms. But Hammers said that doesn’t solve the handicap-accessibility issue.
Just as important, Hammers said the episode leaves her feeling like SCOPE lacks accountability.
“I don’t know if [Schweitzer] tells the board what is going on. I don’t know if she tells them anything,” Hammers said.
It would make sense for a member of each of SCOPE’s six senior centers to be appointed to attend each SCOPE board meeting, Hammers said.
“I explained to [Hammers] that the SCOPE board hires a staff to carry out policy-making issues,” Schweitzer said. Among the staff are Schweitzer and directors at each SCOPE center.
Atty. Frank Bodor, a legal adviser to SCOPE, said that SCOPE’s board of directors are all volunteers, so an attempt is made to keep meetings short.
“If you open your meetings to the public, your agenda of an hour, hour and a half becomes convoluted to all afternoon. It’s not like a county commissioners meeting. It’s run like a corporation.”
All three county commissioners — Paul Heltzel, Dan Polivka and Frank Fuda — said they found SCOPE’s closed-access surprising.
“Just because of the nature of the business, I think it behooves them to allow access to their board members,” said Heltzel. “It’s not black ops, so I don’t know why they would want to limit that.”
Heltzel said SCOPE could limit the amount of time the public speaks to the board, like various governmental bodies do.
“I think they need to have total transparency,” agreed Polivka. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t allow them to attend meetings when SCOPE receives a good chunk of the seniors levy money.”
Diane Drawl, the administrator who oversees the Trumbull County senior citizen levy, said SCOPE has been paid $2,761,702 in seniors levy money since April 2007, the first year of levy payouts.
SCOPE was awarded $798,288 in levy dollars for the most recent year.
Jeff Hovanic, a SCOPE board member and Champion Township trustee, said he believes SCOPE’s board should meet with the public, but requests of that type have been rare in his years on the board.
“I have no reason to have any opposition to it, personally. But that is a board, and I can’t speak for the board,” Hovanic said.
He added that when Hammers and the others came to the board meeting in January, “the board didn’t know what to do. The board had no problem with meeting with them, but they were not on the agenda.”
Schweitzer said SCOPE is audited by various government agencies that provide SCOPE’s revenue, such as the Ohio Department of Aging, U.S. Administration on Aging, and Drawl for the seniors levy.
Drawl, however, said she had a particular problem with SCOPE last year after SCOPE experienced a reduction in one of the programs it was running for senior citizens. The program was homemaker services, which includes housekeeping and personal-care assistance for senior citizens.
Easter Seals of Youngs-town and Comfort Keepers of Warren were awarded part of the care contract SCOPE had the year before. Drawl asked SCOPE to provide the names, phone numbers and addresses of the clients SCOPE was losing so they could be notified of their new service provider. SCOPE refused, saying that giving that information would violate the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Drawl disagrees that giving names, addresses and phone numbers would be a HIPPA violation.
When Comfort Keepers was in the same situation two years ago, Comfort Keepers turned over its names to SCOPE, Drawl said. The result of SCOPE not turning over the names was that some clients were unable to keep getting the service, Drawl added.
Schweitzer said SCOPE did what it was supposed to — it notified its former clients that they had been switched to another provider.
SCOPE was in hot water with the county commissioners in 2009 after the previous levy administrator, Niles-based Area Agency on Aging 11, said SCOPE had overbilled the senior levy fund for a variety of services.
Two such overbillings were for senior-citizen golf and line dancing, charging $33 per hour to the levy fund for activities that should have cost about $9 per hour, Area Agency on Aging said.
The commissioners eventually required SCOPE to repay $90,000 that they said was overbilled. In a letter to SCOPE in February 2009, commissioners said SCOPE had to repay the money because SCOPE “elected to spend its earmarked funds within its own interpretation” of its contract.
A CITIZEN LOOK
SCOPE has refused to turn over financial information to Hammers or The Vindicator. But SCOPE is required by federal law to file a Form 990 tax return. Though that document is a public record, it is far less detailed than an actual budget.
SCOPE’s 990 forms say the organization had revenue and expenses of between $1.7 million and $2.4 million per year between 2008 and 2010. SCOPE has been awarded about $700,000 per year from the seniors levy since 2007, the first year of the levy, county records show.
SCOPE reported expenses of $87,451 in 2009 and $41,562 in 2010 under the category “Conferences, conventions and meetings.”
Kim Haase, grants and contracts coordinator for SCOPE, said that category is misleading. It doesn’t indicate that SCOPE officers are spending that kind of money on conferences or conventions in far-off places. Instead, that line is used to show the compensation SCOPE employees are paid to travel to homes to provide home care.
It also is used to show expenses incurred while operating SCOPE’s three wheelchair-equipped vans to drive clients to and from Christ Episcopal Church in Warren for adult day care, Haase said.
Schweitzer’s salary in 2009 was listed at $46,301. For 2010, it was $37,528, according to the Form 990.
No salary is listed for any other SCOPE officers. SCOPE lists “other salaries and wages” for 112 employees of about $1.1 million in 2009 and 2010.