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United Way merger stirs some to cry foul Decision tied to way vote was handled

Three separate United Way agencies that serve Niagara County and part of Erie County have voted to merge, but not without a calculated move to pad the vote in the Tonawandas. That has led to some hard feelings.

The new organization will be called the United Way of Greater Niagara -- Serving Niagara County and the Tonawandas, and will combine the United Way of Niagara, the Eastern Niagara United Way and the United Way of the Tonawandas.

A troubled economy, struggles to meet fundraising goals in recent years and a desire to put more money into the hands of the nonprofits it supports paved the way for the consolidation. A transition team made up of members of all three agencies has worked for two years on the process.

The corporate office will be located in the United Way of Niagara's current location at 3000 Military Road, Town of Niagara, and transition team members agreed unanimously that Carol Houwaart-Diez, president of the United Way of Niagara, would head the combined organization.

"We're a moving, dynamic organization and we're here to serve the community," Houwaart-Diez said Friday afternoon during the United Way of Niagara's annual business luncheon at Antonio's banquet center. "At the end of the day, that's what we're all about."

The Tonawandas organization, at 32 Seymour St. in the City of Tonawanda, and the Eastern Niagara location in Lockport, at 41 Main St., will be scaled down to community service centers. The Lockport center may stay put, but the Tonawandas site will be closed and the center moved to rented space in the Salvation Army a few blocks away on Broad Street.

Combining United Way operations will save up to $135,000 a year in managerial expenses, Houwaart-Diez estimated. All full-time employees will be given the opportunity to join the new organization, though some job titles will change.

The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County serves all of Erie County outside the town and city of Tonawanda.

George O'Neil, executive director of the United Way of the Tonawandas, opposed the merger because of the changes in store in his community. He was outraged Friday by the way the merger vote was handled Thursday evening during his agency's annual meeting.

Bylaws allow anyone who has donated to a particular United Way the ability to vote on a proposed merger. Proxy voting also is allowed.

In the days before the meeting, Jeff Eddy, the manager of regulatory accounting services for National Grid, asked co-workers in the company's Buffalo office if they'd donate money to the United Way of the Tonawandas and provide permission for a proxy vote on the merger.

Eddy -- a member of the United Way of Niagara board, as well as the transition team that hashed out the merger -- told The Buffalo News on Friday that nearly 30 of his fellow workers donated at least $1 and gave proxy permission, and that five or six residents of the Tonawandas who worked in the office and had already donated to the agency also gave proxy votes.

Those 34 proxy votes were among 115 proxies provided to Robert Sondel, United Way of the Tonawandas board chairman, who cast them all in favor of the merger.

Those in the room voted 38 to 30 to support the merger, a result that was less than the two-thirds needed to pass the consolidation, O'Neil said.

"The vote was not a true read of community support," O'Neil said Friday.

A State Supreme Court justice and the state attorney general's office must approve the merger before it is finalized.

Leaders of the combined agency said they hope that can be accomplished by April, although O'Neil said he plans to challenge the results of the vote with the attorney general's office and, possibly, in court.

"We knew that we needed the proxies . . .," Eddy said, "and we were told by the [United Way of the Tonawandas] board that this was acceptable."

Robert Hagen, chief executive and chairman of the Eastern Niagara board, said he was among the "hard sells" when consolidation talk surfaced, but that he and other community leaders "realized the challenges we have in today's climate."

"By looking at what works best [for all three agencies]," he said, "I believe we'll be more efficient."

e-mail: sscanlon@buffnews.com

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