Debt Sentence

Financial disaster threatens a major East Side community center.

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Can Wallace Floyd save the Collinwood Community Services Center? - Walter  Novak
Can Wallace Floyd save the Collinwood Community Services Center?
Like most inner-city social service agencies, the Collinwood Community Services Center has long struggled to stretch its dollars to provide day care, meals, and housing assistance to the poor. Unlike its counterparts, though, the Collinwood center faces a crushing problem — a $300,000 debt that threatens to close the facility or at least severely curtail its programs, depriving needy children and seniors in a neighborhood devastated by decades of factory closings.

"Is the [agency] salvageable? At this point, I don't know," says south Collinwood Councilman Roosevelt Coats, a longtime ex officio member of the center's board of directors.

The Collinwood center is in immediate need of at least $100,000 in cash to cover outstanding utility and food bills, salaries, and maintenance at its main building on East 152nd Street. It must also find a way to retire more than $200,000 in loans and other bills that have gone unpaid.

"I offer creditors fifty bucks, whatever they will take, even a dollar," says Wallace Floyd, the center's new executive director. "I'm honest and tell them that we just don't have the money."

Board members and city officials only recently acknowledged the enormity of the problem at CCSC, which has been in serious financial trouble for at least three years. An audit is under way that could reveal an even greater financial crisis. Interviews with numerous officials close to the center, which relies on city and federal dollars as well as its own economic development programs, suggest that the majority of the problems can be traced to overly ambitious renovation and expansion efforts, the instability of numerous executive directors, and lack of oversight by its board.

The financial crisis began in 1996, when CCSC tried to turn an old Ameritrust branch bank on East 152nd into a day-care center, hoping to repeat the success of its satellite facility in nearby Euclid. But the renovation was short of funding, even before the project's construction costs went tens of thousands of dollars over the initial estimate, topping out at $350,000. The following year, CCSC was forced to relocate its profitable Euclid day-care facility, another project that ran tens of thousands of dollars over budget. The move took eight months, during which time the Collinwood center lost much of its day-care income, yet kept a full staff on payroll.

The executive director who inherited most of these problems was Larry Bresler, who resigned in January. When he took over the agency in September 1996, he says, he discovered nearly unreadable books and nine months of unpaid bills, many of which could have qualified for reimbursement through city and county programs.

The cash-flow problem got so bad that Bresler, over the objections of his wife, lent the agency $31,000 from his family's personal savings to complete the renovation of the Euclid day-care facility. He hoped that would restore an income flow, enabling CCSC to repay the loan.

He has never recovered a single dollar.

To what extent Bresler, a former employee of the city's Community Development Department, exacerbated the problems by failing to raise funds, make tough staff cuts, and seek help from his board, is up for debate. But Bresler is not one to duck responsibility.

"I accept blame for the agency's problems," he says. "I left when I did out of exhaustion, after seventy-hour weeks, and after things were just not improving."

"There were management decisions made that weren't prudent," acknowledges Floyd. "[The agency] dug a hole trying to escape from construction costs. We have been robbing Peter to pay Paul."

It's also clear that the CCSC board neglected its financial oversight duties, though individual board members are less willing to accept responsibility.

"I'm sure there is enough blame to go around," says board President Allan Cabaniss, a Cleveland public schools substitute teacher. "The board was aware two years ago that the agency was $100,000 in debt. But when the board looked at the books [recently], we saw about $300,000."

North Collinwood Councilman Mike Polensek, a non-voting member for about twenty years, admits that he had not been attending board meetings regularly. He says he became aware of the severity of the center's problems late last year, when he received a call from Dave's Supermarket complaining that CCSC owed the store $5,000 in unpaid food bills. Polensek is asking the city's Department of Community Development, which funds several of the center's programs, to investigate.

Councilman Coats received similar calls from creditors, forcing him to get more involved. "I want to know what is going on," he says. "I put funds into the agency, and no one wants to pour money in a barrel without a bottom. I'm not sure we have identified the problems."

Coats says that CCSC missed deadlines for grant money that easily could have been obtained, and defends his inaction, insisting that "things were kept from the board." But several people, including Bresler, say that Coats himself helped fuel the financial crisis by failing to deliver on promises to fund a staff position for a housing inspector after the position was filled.

A City of Cleveland spokes-person says the city is reviewing the matter and is awaiting the latest audit fundings. "[Community Development Director Linda] Hudecek is as perplexed as me," says Coats.

The Neighborhood Centers Association (NCA), the agency responsible for planning, coordinating, and budgeting neighborhood center work, is also working to save the Collinwood center. In fact, NCA formed a special "financial controls" subcommittee six months ago to assist the Collinwood center. NCA President Joseph Garcia says his agency has extended CCSC a line of credit and is monitoring its management plan. He says negotiations involving a Collinwood development project could soon net needed money for CCSC.

Currently, the Collinwood center has a budget of $1.1 million and thirty full-time staff people, down from its normal 45-person staff size. Board President Cabaniss says he and his fellow board members are banking on Floyd to turn the agency around. "We hired him because of his business contacts," he says.

Floyd, who dresses like a company CEO, brings the business acumen of running the nonprofit Cleveland Industrial Retention Initiative, also located in the Collinwood neighborhood. He has worked closely in the past with CCSC, the city's only community center that also operates as a development corporation.

Floyd promises to run the Collinwood center like a business, making tough decisions on staffing and programs, and keeping the board informed of every detail of his actions — no matter what the cost. "I don't give a damn about losing my job," he says. "You will know what's going on."

Mark Naymik can be reached at [email protected].

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