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Judge gives St. Augustine Center 30 days to fix problems

St. Augustine Center, one of the oldest human service agencies on the East Side, has 30 days to get its long-troubled house in order before the State Supreme Court begins taking steps to shut it down for good.

Justice John A. Michalek bowed to a request by Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples, D-Buffalo, giving her a month to devise a plan to save an organization in desperate need of miracles to survive.

Peoples made a surprise appearance in court Thursday, pledging to clean house and oust St. Augustine's current leaders, including Jacqueline Mines, its executive director.

St. Augustine has been in and out of court for more than a year as it struggles to continue providing services to foster children and the elderly while burdened with huge debts accumulated through years of mismanagement.

The state Labor Department has been aggressively seeking $675,000 from the agency for payroll expenses and penalties resulting from failure to pay dozens of employees who essentially found themselves working for nothing.

Thursday, Michalek ordered agency administrators to immediately provide the state attorney general's office proof of their claims that the agency's 60 current employees received their paychecks last Friday. He also ordered the center to provide such proof on future paychecks.

Peoples, a former St. Augustine employee, said she and her staff hope to come up with a turnaround plan for the agency. But if it proves impossible, she said, she will support the court-ordered closing of the center and the transfer of its programs to other groups.

Richard Balletta, New York State's assistant attorney general, said other state, local government and community-based agencies stand ready to take over the assistance programs run by St. Augustine.

Balletta noted that the state Labor Department and the attorney general's office have been trying without success since last April to get Mines and her staff to correct problems.

Speaking on behalf of St. Augustine, attorney Terrence D. McKelvey urged the judge to delay rulings in the dispute indefinitely, claiming only "a handful of employees" have complained about delayed paychecks. He also said the state owes the center $400,000.

Balletta denied these claims.

Mines declined to comment after the court proceeding but later issued a written statement complaining about media coverage of the center's problems. As in the past, she said the state and local governments have failed to provide the money it needs to function.

Staff Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this story.

-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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