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Firm Foundation Finds a Friend

The Firm Foundation appears to be on firm ground with the state agency with whom it has entered the second year of a three-year grant program. That might be taken as a ringing endorsement, except that the representative of the state agency who made a special visit to Bradford County Wednesday says the program is still being monitored, and they will wait to see what comes out of an independent audit expected to be performed on behalf of the Bradford County Commissioners.

"This is a pilot project and, typically, you have to go through some sort of settling in before you can provide oversight," said Paul Lieper, a program specialist for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), the benefactor behind the three-year grant program totaling some $390,000 counting local matching funds.

The Firm Foundation of Bradford County, a faith-based program utilizing the skills and labor of prison inmates to work on public building projects, was the recent subject of a performance report by the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy. The report found Firm Foundation to be in violation of its contract obligations with the county, which is its sponsor and guarantor. Many of the violations cited centered around what they say are failures to document spending and program performance.

The Bradford County Commissioners seem to share that concern and two weeks ago voted to proceed with auditing the Firm Foundation to determine if there has been any misappropriation of funds, incompetent administration practices or unsound bookkeeping practices.

Wayne Blow, founder and former executive director of the program, accompanied Lieper to a housing rehabilitation project at 305 Pine Street in Towanda. Lieper spoke briefly and answered queries from members of the news media. Also in attendance was Dick Friend, who succeeds Blow as executive director, though Blow still continues in the capacity of board president. Blow had previously stated that Lieper's appearance Wednesday would answer questions raised in recent weeks and show that the PCCD has no concerns with his program.

Indeed, Lieper said that he did not have any concerns at this time, but he added "most programs like these take at least 12 months to make a transition." The Firm Foundation ended its first year with the grant program on June 30 this year, which puts it two months into its second year. Under that timetable, Lieper indicated that it is simply too early to tell.

"I am waiting to see the county's audit, and we can make recommendations from there," Lieper said.

The three-year grant program provides more that $129,000 in each of the three years. However, increasing matching monies from the local guarantor, in this case Bradford County, are specified in the contract. Bradford County chipped in 25 percent the first year, and this year it is 50-50 between the PCCD and the county. However, the Firm Foundation has pledged to provide that match and has until next July to come up with it, Lieper said. He also noted that the county is still the guarantor, and that means if Firm Foundation can't come up with the money, the county is responsible. The last year of the grant package, by the way, calls for the local entity to come up with 75 percent of the $129,000.

Grants are formulated this way to get a program started and then, over the three years, make the funded agency less dependent on state money and more self-sufficient.

At this point, PCCD, according to Lieper, has no reason to feel there are any abuses being perpetrated by the Firm Foundation, but reiterated that his agency will ultimately rely on the county, with whom it has the contract, to provide necessary documentation.

"We require certain reports from the county," Lieper said. "So far, I see no problem."

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