The court-ordered closing of St. Augustine Center is the latest in a string of financial collapses among community nonprofit agencies with deep ties to their clients.
But when State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek made his ruling last week, the Main Street center, which provided home health aid, foster care and programs for youth and senior citizens in the black community, was a shell of its former self.
Its 65 or so remaining clients already have been transferred to other care providers, and Erie County officials said they were confident none would fall through the cracks.
"We have a lot of agencies that could pick up that volume," said Michael Weiner, the county's social services commissioner.
So what, then, was the net loss of St. Augustine's folding? Some observers say it is yet to be felt. But this much is certain: A community with few human service providers run by African-Americans now has one less.
St. Augustine Center joins Friendship House, the Clarkson Center, My Brother's Keeper and the Geneva B. Scruggs Community Health Care Center -- all of them closed over the past 10 years due to financial problems.
"The Western New York community is going to miss a healthy St. Augustine Center," said Michael Robinson, a former deputy director who resigned last year over differences with the president about how the agency could dig itself out of debt. "It would be truly fantastic if somehow that center could get one more chance."
>Agency had unique niche
Before its current troubles, the agency at 1437 Main St. held a unique niche in the human services sector, particularly with African-American clients, providing "cradle to grave services," said Robinson. "We were uniquely situated to deal with all facets of a family," he said.
Robinson was one of several people familiar with the organization who believe it could have been saved with better management.
"It's a horrible disservice to the community that it's no longer there," said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples, D-Buffalo, who made a last-ditch effort to try to save the center. "The years of mismanagement literally dwindled the organization down to nothing."
Peoples had asked Michalek for 30 days to get St. Augustine back on track.
It is important to have black-managed agencies providing human services to a client population that is largely African-American, she said. "There's a huge value."
Black-run agencies, she said, often identify better with black clients because they "come from the same cultural experiences, the same social challenges."
Ultimately, however, Peoples didn't dispute Michalek's decision. The agency again failed to pay its employees on time, despite assertions that it would. "His decision was fair," said Peoples, a former employee of the center.
The St. Augustine closing attests to the need for better training and development of nonprofit board members, Peoples said.
While Peoples blamed "simple mismanagement" as a primary culprit in the agency's downfall, she also cited a board that was not fully functional. "This is why you have a board. The board is supposed to direct the director," she said.
No longer can nonprofit board members take on the job simply as a resume filler, she added. "It has to be a lot more than that," she said, including knowing how to raise money for the organization,
The county's Department of Social Services, in conjunction with a court-appointed lawyer, worked out a plan late last week to transfer 22 children from St. Augustine's foster care program and 31 adults from the agency's long-term home health care program.
Another 12 elderly clients in home health care also were transferred.
Many of the 60 employees on St. Augustine's payroll have been hired by All Metro Health Care, a for-profit company that took over St. Augustine's long-term home health care clientele and has other contracts with Erie County.
>Debt level uncertain
Another minority-operated agency, the Bailey-Delavan Center, will take on the case management duties performed by the St. Augustine Center through a contract with the county's Department of Senior Services, said Commissioner Pamela M. Krawczyk.
Adam Perry, the lawyer appointed by Michalek, said he did not yet have a handle on the extent of the agency's debt, although some estimates put it at nearly $2 million, with dozens of staff still owed back wages.
The depth of the center's financial troubles became apparent last year following the departure of several board members.
The most recent board chairman, H. McCarthy Gipson, could not be reached to comment. Gipson resigned from the St. Augustine board earlier this month, after Mayor Byron W. Brown appointed him Buffalo police commissioner. Jacqueline Mines, president and chief executive officer of St. Augustine, didn't return several calls seeking comment.
Even before Mines was hired, the agency was saddled with significant debt.
Mines replaced Calvin Waller, who was convicted in 2004 of spending $700,000 in state Medicaid funds to pay for programs and building improvements. In a settlement with the state, the center agreed to repay $388,000 over 10 years.
The county tried to help by bringing in a state Medicaid representative to show the agency how to prepare a proper appeal of its reimbursement rates, said Weiner. "They never followed through on those kinds of things," Weiner said. "Their debt has actually gone up in the past six months."
Many employees were essentially working for free.
Latrenda Bush, who worked as a medical biller from June 2004 to July 2005, figures she is owed more than $1,000. "My first paycheck was late," she said. In 14 months, she was paid on schedule four times, she said.
Robinson, the former deputy director, maintained that the agency could have cut into its debts and paid its employees. Aimless programs like a youth literacy initiative should have been eliminated, he said, adding that innovative new programs, with commitments of significant dollars from the private sector, were never implemented.
Robinson said he had a plan to bring in $200,000 in new revenue, but it didn't go anywhere.
Other employees said agency dollars were routinely squandered, and funds designated for payroll used for other things. Bush, for example, recalled a fund-raiser featuring a rap artist who was paid $2,500 plus travel expenses from the West Coast for himself and his family.
The event drew few people, she said. "It wasn't planned. It wasn't organized. It was just something that was done. It was thrown together," she said.
The agency had 2,500 T-shirts made at $8 a piece, with the intention of selling them for $12. Most of the shirts ended up being given away to staff, Bush said. "I had about seven or eight T-shirts myself," she said.