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United Way merger plan stalled Combining forces becomes a difficult challenge

A proposed merger among the three United Way organizations that serve Niagara County and part of Erie County has become a more difficult challenge than raising money in these hard times.

The directors of the United Way of Niagara, headquartered in the Town of Niagara, and the Lockport-based Eastern Niagara United Way have voted in favor of combining forces, perhaps as early as April 1.

The one holdout is the United Way of the Tonawandas, which voted against the proposed merger last month.

"The executive board turned down the plan as proposed," said George O'Neil, the executive director, emphasizing the last two words. "I don't see this as a partnership with equal say. I see it as a takeover. Erie County is not even mentioned in the new name."

The new organization would be called the United Way of Greater Niagara, with the corporate office located in the United Way of Niagara's current location at 3000 Military Road, Town of Niagara.

The transition team, which consists of representatives from the three United Ways, agreed unanimously that Carol Houwaart-Diez, president of the United Way of Niagara, would head the combined organization.

The Tonawandas organization, at 32 Seymour St. in the City of Tonawanda, and Lockport's, at 41 Main St., would be scaled down to community service centers. The Lockport service center may stay in its current location, but the current United Way of the Tonawandas site would be closed and the community center moved to rented space in the Salvation Army a couple of blocks away on Broad Street.

O'Neil believes his 90-year-old organization would lose its community identity if the site were shut down.

"I have a problem seeing this United Way closed down," he said. "You're merging communities, not just United Ways. We're a human organization. We've been helping people for 90 years, and we're going to continue doing it."

Founded in 1918, the United Way of the Tonawandas has been around the longest of the three organizations -- the United Way of Niagara began in 1924, and the Eastern Niagara United Way was launched in 1938.

Nicolas Maniccia, a Lockport bank manager who lives in North Tonawanda, was one of the members of the Tonawandas board who voted in favor of the merger, which he said was almost a split decision.

"That was the first formal vote on the issue," he noted. "Though this was voted down by a slim margin, the differences are minor and will be talked through -- primarily the Tonawandas community center, whether or not it will meet the needs of the community."

Maniccia said Wednesday that the Tonawandas executive board may vote on the issue again when it meets later this week. O'Neil is not a voting member of the executive board.

"In these economic times," Maniccia said, "consolidation is common and almost necessary for organizations to survive."

O'Neil said he believes a merger is inevitable, but not under the terms set down by the United Way of Niagara, which he said has put itself in the forefront and pushed his smaller organization aside.

"George is being overly cautious," said Maniccia, referring to O'Neil. "We're not losing a presence in the community. Our service to the community will be better when we're partnering with the Salvation Army."

Each community center would have its own telephone number, which in off hours would automatically transfer to the corporate office. "No matter what time people call looking for help," Maniccia added, "there will always an avenue available."

O'Neil doesn't buy that.

His United Way has a physical presence in the community, and its doors are open to walk-ins, whereas the Town of Niagara organization's isn't, he said.

"When a person drops in here wanting to know where the nearest food pantry is, we have an intake person who handles it personally," O'Neil said, referring to Carol Heavern. Stephanie Martin, the director of finance and administration, completes the staff.

"Everything we do, we do on this site," O'Neil noted. "This site is most valuable to the community. Moving us there, that won't work."

O'Neil said he has devoted 36 years to the United Way of the Tonawandas, which serves North Tonawanda, the City of Tonawanda and parts of the towns of Tonawanda and Wheatfield.

"The United Way is a disaster organization," he said. "We're often the last resort for people who need help. I'm fighting for what the community needs."

The United Way of Niagara gets very few walk-ins, Houwaart-Diez said.

"We're a referral organization. We help link services to people. We're here to help the community, whatever it takes. My forte is to get the word out for financial contributions that will help the community," said Houwaart-Diez, a lifelong Niagara County resident who has a degree in accounting.

Robert Hagen is acting chief executive officer, and chairman of the board of directors of the Eastern Niagara United Way, both volunteer posts. He takes exception to O'Neil's position.

"The intent of the new organization is to still have a presence in the community," Hagen said. "We may end up with smaller floor space, but we will still have a presence with the community service centers."

Hagen, who worked at Harrison Radiator (now Delphi Thermal Systems) for 38 years and worked his way up to manager of engineering and business development, sees the merger as an economic necessity.

"We're looking for more effectiveness in our prime goal of raising money," Hagen said. "Trimming down from three executives to one is just one of the ways we would save costs. Merging our operations is the right thing to do."

His 24-member board approved the merger Thursday. The vote was "not unanimous, but nearly," he said.

Combining operations would save up to $135,000 a year in managerial expenses, Houwaart-Diez said.

Hagen said the savings will come from slightly smaller office space and more buying power for insurance, printing and other services. The combined agency would only have to pay for one financial audit, for instance, instead of three.

All full-time employees will be given the opportunity to join the new organization, though some job titles would change.

"We're not doing this at the expense of the people who work for us," Hagen said.

"Our job is to energize workplace contributions," he added. "The Western New York area is not an easy place to raise money in these hard times. If we were in a growing community in the Southwest, for example, it would be easier to grow our revenues. But in this area, it's a challenge. Companies are operating more lean, but the demand for services is greater.

"By making ourselves streamlined, we think that will translate into more support."

Even though the corporate offices would be in the Town of Niagara, the cities of Niagara Falls, Tonawanda and Lockport would each have a community service center that would be open 15 hours a week, three hours a day, Monday through Friday. In Niagara Falls, the community service center would be located in a former bank building at 1905 Pine Ave.

Merger aside, raising money was difficult enough for the three organizations.

Last year, the United Way of Niagara eked out its goal of $935,000 by the campaign deadline with a frantic scramble for donations in the last week.

The other two organizations are keeping their 2008 campaign open. Eastern Niagara is still 10 percent short of its goal of $1 million, and the United Way of the Tonawandas is also about 10 percent shy of its $400,000 goal.

O'Neil was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division in the 1960s and worked for the former National Grinding Wheel Co. in North Tonawanda for 22 years, serving as president of United Steelworkers Local 12419. He began as a volunteer with the United Way of the Tonawandas 36 years ago and has been the executive director for the past 21 years.

"I will continue to work on a collaboration between the United Ways in an attempt to reduce duplication and cut costs," he said.

But as the United Ways in Niagara and Lockport move toward a merger, O'Neil has a final plea for the Tonawandas:

"Don't strip away everything we've built up over the years for a corporate entity that won't be in touch with the community."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

***

Not quite united front

The United Way of Niagara and the Eastern United Way have decided to join forces, but the United Way of the Tonawandas has resisted efforts to enter into the partnership.

United Way of Niagara

Founded: 1924

President: Carol Houwaart-Diez

2008 fundraising goal: $935,000... achieved

Staff: Three full-time, one part-time

Serves: 16 member agencies with 47 programs

*

Eastern Niagara United Way

Founded: 1938

Acting chief executive officer: Robert Hagen

2008 fundraising goal: $1 million... 90 percent raised

Staff: Two full-time

Serves: 15 agencies with 40 programs

*

United Way of theTonawandas

Founded: 1918

Executive director: George O'Neil

2008 fundraising goal: $400,000... 90 percent raised

Staff: Two full-time and one part-time

Serves: 14 agencies with 32 programs

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