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Firm Foundation May Be Faltering

The Firm Foundation appears to be on shaky ground, now that the Bradford County Commissioners, faithful supporters of this faith-based agency, have agreed, by resolution, to take a closer look at the finances and performance of this program. Their action was spurred by the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy, which has previously issued a performance report on the Firm Foundation of Bradford County, uncovering what it described as "71 violations of the public trust."

Although their performance report was released to the news media some three weeks ago and, according to one of its authors, Laura H. Blain, given to the commissioners a month prior to that, the county administrators have taken no public action until last Thursday's meeting. Blain and Jeffrey Gonzalez, representing the Alliance, attended the meeting, asked them to adopt a resolution and even provided the suggested wording.

"Only a full audit could determine why there is such a gross difference between expenditures and performance," said Gonzalez in requesting that the commissioners "contract with an independent, outside accounting firm" to conduct an audit of the program and release the results to the public.

Although such requests are usually accepted for review with a promise to render a decision at a later date, this time the commissioners—two of them at least—were ready to take action. Janet Lewis, who made the motion to adopt a motion for an audit, confided that she has been uneasy about the county's relationship with Firm Foundation for some time. The commissioners, after all, have chipped in $36,781 to the program in the first year to help get it started and last year continued to stand behind the matching grant for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). In fact, it appears that the program received as much as $190,000 in state and federal money in a single calendar year for a program that was to train at least 40 prison inmates a year on public service construction projects. Instead, it appears to have utilized barely a dozen over a two-year span.

Not only have they received over $129,00 in each of the previous two years in the PCCD program, but mere months before that availed themselves of more than $60,000 in faith-based funding through the U.S. Department of Labor as secured by the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission (NTRPDC).

"Thanks to the Bush administration, there is renewed emphasis on faith-based funding and Mr. (Wayne) Blow seems to know how to get it," said Blain.

In the meantime, the Bradford County Alliance for Democracy notes that founder and former Executive Director Wayne Blow (he recently turned that job over to Richard Friend and assumed the board presidency instead) was cashing a $500 paycheck during the first year of the program in Bradford County, likely grossing as much as $750, and, according to Blain, he was subsequently grossing about $900. There have also been weekly checks issued to a project manager and several other staffers, including a construction site manager, totaling well over $1,000 on top of the money paid to Blow.

"The problem is that nobody has asked them for the documentation before," says Blain, who is particularly mystified by PCCD's lack of attention to detail. Normally, they would want to know how the money is being spent on a monthly basis. Instead, they seemed to be accepting the most general information, passing the grant checks to the county, which, in turn, essentially endorsed them and passed them on to the Firm Foundation. The proper procedure, according to PCCD's own guidelines, says Blain, would be for the county to hold the money and provide payments to the Firm Foundation on a monthly or quarterly basis after the latter submitted their billing and other documentation.

"Joan Sanderson (Bradford County's chief financial officer) told me PCCD often asked for missing pieces of reports," says Blain, who added that the county apparently relies on the agency for oversight and to call the shots on providing documentation. "Why didn't they in this case?"

Throughout much of this year, the Firm Foundation has clearly been struggling, at one time virtually idle for several months, and then finding a housing rehabilitation project on Pine Street in Towanda. But only two inmates were being used. In fact, there were often more paid supervisors than inmates at the job site, and Blow was saying that five more inmates would soon be coming from the Bradford County Correctional Facility. In essence, a $130,000 program has funneled all those resources into two inmates this year.

Of course, the program does do beneficial things as outlined. The home on Pine Street, a former burned-out methamphetamine lab, is on its way to being transformed into a home for a low- or moderate-income family. The goals of the program seem noble enough, and nobody is talking about criminal activity at this point. They do note that, aside from all that government money, the Firm Foundation has received generous donations from organizations like Wysox EMS, a beneficiary of one of their projects, and the Borough of Towanda has reportedly chipped in $75,000 for materials for the Pine Street project.

The Bradford County Alliance is raising the question: Where is all this money going and why isn't it being documented?

Commissioners Lewis and Nancy Schrader, by the way, did vote to approve an audit of the Firm Foundation. Doug McLinko provided the dissenting vote, explaining at the time that, though he had concerns, he feels he needs more time before calling for an audit.

"I just don't want to be pressured into making a decision by people who come to our meetings with demands," McLinko said later, noting that an audit itself is an expense. "I think Firm Foundation has done some good things, lives had been changed for the better, and I hate to see us lose something that can do some good."

McLinko is unabashedly a believer in what he calls "God's work" and suggests that the Firm Foundation's detractors are more interested in attacking Christianity and destroying faith-based programs than anything else. The Firm Foundation is faith-based because it also allegedly includes a Christian ministry component in its rehabilitation efforts.

Gonzalez said much of the reason it took so long for the commissioners to deal with their report publicly is their organization's admitted emphasis on First Amendment rights and, specifically, the separation of church and state.

"We've decided to back off the faith-based issue because people just get too emotional," said Gonzalez. "That may be how we got interested in the Firm Foundation in the first place, but it has become a taxpayer issue. The real issue is the co-mingling of public funds."

Blain, who did much of the research used in the report, agrees: "When the faith angle is mentioned, no one hears anything else. Once I started looking, the fiscal issues and lack of oversight loomed unavoidably large."

It should be noted that the PCCD funding stream into which the Firm Foundation has tapped is designed to get such a program started and then gradually wean them off so they can subsist on their own. This is a matching grant program, with the agency providing in the first three years of the program, no more than 75, 50 and 25 percent, respectively. By the fourth year of the program, it should be self-sufficient. Since the Firm Foundation has no real income-generating capability, they would have to subsist on donations, corporate and individual sponsors, or find other grant monies to help fund them.

"We've been so reliant on the government in the past," Blow said this summer after receiving a donation from one community group. "This is all about community and we're looking for organizations like this to help us in our mission."

Blain and Gonzalez both see the value in a program that not only benefits the public but also teaches prison inmates a trade and gives them a direction after they get out of jail. However, they don't believe you should get a free pass just because you are purporting to do good works.

"They're not reading the rules, and not following the rules," Blain notes. "No one is looking, and no one is supposed to look. It's as if we should just take them on, well, ?faith.'"

(Editor's Note: More on this issue next week and a closer look at the Firm Foundation itself, its origins and how it operates).



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