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Is the food bank crumbling?

Board ethics, site selection process and soaring costs raise questions


by: JOSH KULLA - Wilsonville Community Sharing is currently seeking a lease agreement with Frog Pond Church to house a facility on its property.There is more than just the grumbling of hungry bellies these days at the Wilsonville Community Sharing food pantry.

In addition to paying the bills and helping the less fortunate, the group now is grappling with questions surrounding the ethics of its board of directors, the site selection process for a planned new facility and, finally, the skyrocketing costs to build it.

More than two years after announcing plans to relocate to a larger facility, the charitable organization that includes the Wilsonville Food Bank as well as referral services has made minimal progress and has lost all but two of its board members.

WCS is a volunteer-led nonprofit that operates a food pantry and offers referral services for utilities, prescriptions and rent. It has operated for 14 years out of the Meridian United Church on Boeckman Road, also known as Frog Pond Church.

For nearly three years now, WCS has wished to expand beyond its current location. In January, the group stated publicly that it had identified three potential sites to build a new facility, thanks in part to a $240,000 community development block grant it was awarded in July 2012.

Currently, the Wilsonville Food Bank uses the basement and a space in the north wing of the Frog Pond Church. It is open on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. With continued growth and need in the community, the current location has proved to be too small.

It served 147 families in June, which translates to 390 to 500 individuals, according to Leigh Crosby, food bank director. Over the course of a year, Crosby said, more than 5,000 are typically aided by WCS.

“We serve all ages, and we serve all income levels,” said Lani Snyder, a referral specialist with WCS. “We are looking to relocate to a larger space. Then, we can provide more services.”

However, that goal has been harder to achieve than first thought.

Controlled by a board of volunteers, Wilsonville Community Sharing used the help of Wilsonville resident Jay Puppo, the husband of former board member Tammy Puppo, to help find potential sites for the expanded food pantry.

Jay Puppo has a long history of successfully raising funds for nonprofits, including helping start the Kiwanis Kids Fun Run. He is the president of the West Linn-Wilsonville Education Foundation.

“For several years I watched the board struggle to find a new home,” Puppo said. “I offered to be a worker bee.”

In the beginning, Puppo told WCS Board Chairman Rich Truitt he would only help if the process was fair and objective with written criteria.

In early 2010, Puppo traversed the city of Wilsonville looking for potential sites to lease. However, he had to change course when the block grant was awarded. The grant can only be used for the purchase or construction of a building.

“I basically did all the work over again. There are very few properties available to meet the zoning for an organization like this,” Puppo said.

Finding no property priced right to purchase, Puppo zeroed in on leasing land from one of three Wilsonville churches — Valley Christian Church, Frog Pond Church and United Methodist Church.

According to Ken Warner of Valley Christian, the church jumped at the chance to lease a portion of its property to construct the new building. The church is centrally located in the city of Wilsonville with a large number of neighbors already using WCS services. Another bonus is the bus stop in front of the church. The current location is on a bus line, but the nearest stop is a significant distance from Frog Pond Church.

Warner said the WCS board wanted to send an engineer and architect to assess the feasibility of the site and the WCS asked Valley Christian to submit a proposal. Things started going south from there.

“They changed everything,” Warner said of the WCS board.

WCS asked the church to lower its asking price of $750 a month to $500. The church agreed. Then, Warner said, Truitt kept adding more stipulations to the contract, such as subleasing the space to other nonprofits, which was a concern for the church because it operates a preschool at the location.

With mounting frustration, Valley Christian backed out of the negotiations.

“When first presented with the idea, we always felt our premises would be a great site for that community outreach and we still do,” stated a March 27 letter from Warner to WCS. “However, the words and actions of the board chair (Truitt) of WCS make it quite clear that any efforts at negotiating an agreement with WCS will meet with failure.”

In the letter, Warner alleges that Truitt misrepresented conversations.

“He has portrayed us as having the worst possible motives and has slurred the character of both the pastor and the church leadership,” the letter stated. “For Mr. Truitt, this seems to be a contest. We believe Mr. Truitt is interested in winning, not reaching an agreement.”

Change of venue

During this time, the board, which according to its bylaws should have at least seven members, was dwindling in size to just a few members. The remaining members then moved on to option No. 2 — Frog Pond Church, of which Truitt and board member Cheryl Kelly are members.

Negotiations with Frog Pond have extended for months and recently seemed to be nearing an end. According to Frog Pond’s interim pastor, Gabrielle Chavez, the church is excited to be a permanent home for WCS, but its board of trustees has been slow and deliberate in negotiations.

Chavez said Frog Pond has a long history of feeding and housing the poor.

“It’s absolutely essential the community offer this service,” Chavez said. “It just feels like part of our mission. We don’t (care) where it is. We are willing to do what it takes to make sure there’s a food bank.”

Chavez said the church would gain nothing financially from leasing property to WCS, because it would offer the property at a subsidized rate.

“It is a real stretch of faith on our part,” she said. “There’s no financial gain; there’s spiritual gain.”

According to Truitt, when the site approval process with Frog Pond is complete, WCS will seek a conditional use permit from the city and move forward with design and construction.

Soaring costs

But now what was originally thought of as a $400,000 building has escalated to nearly $800,000, according to a feasibility cost analysis from WCS’s engineer, SFA Design Group. The estimate includes $146,000 for site construction costs and $350,000 in building construction costs. However, Josh Komp of SFA Design Group said those numbers may end up lower when more details emerge.

To date, WCS has secured $230,000 through the block grant ($10,000 went to administration fees) and $60,000 of its own reserves. That leaves $510,000 left to be raised. According to the block grant terms, those funds must be raised and a construction contract awarded by May 2014.

“Although we have much work ahead, we are laying the groundwork to reach out to the community to request help in raising the balance of funds needed,” according to WCS.

Declining board

There’s another problem. Despite the work ahead, the WCS board is now down to just two members along with two part-time staffers.

Although minutes from the monthly WCS board meetings repeatedly state the need to recruit new volunteers, the group’s numbers have steadily fallen.

Around March 2011, former WCS Board Chairman Scott Smith resigned. Truitt was elected chairman in May 2011. In June 2011, board member Norm Bengal resigned due to a move. By early 2012, the board was down to four members. Then Bruce Wenigmann left — leaving a board of three.

Most recently, Tammy Puppo resigned last month after serving on the board for five years. She declined to comment on why she resigned.

According to the WCS bylaws, board meetings are open to the public, and those interested in serving on the board must attend at least two meetings before applying. Because the board meets monthly with a minimum of eight meetings a year, it can take more than two months to recruit a new board member.

“Yes, it is a concern that we may not be in exact compliance with regard to the number of board members. An equally important concern has been the need for additional board members both to help do the work of the organization, especially as we take on the major initiative of building a new facility, and to more widely represent the community,” Truitt wrote in an Aug. 11 email to the Spokesman.

Then again, some say attending a meeting is harder than expected.

Warner said when Valley Christian Church suggested it should have a board member on WCS the idea was snubbed.

Dick Spence, who has volunteered at the food pantry for several years, was considering volunteering for a position. But he had a change of heart after being turned away from one board meeting and sitting in on another.

Spence said he withdrew his application after seeing the board “is not functioning.”

“There’s only one speaker, and that is Rich,” Spence said. adding that he knows of others who were contemplating joining the board but also backed out.

When the Spokesman asked to attend a July 30 meeting, Truitt said the meeting was private because the board was dealing with “personnel and another confidential topic.”

According to an email sent from Truitt to the board on July 26, that meeting was meant to discuss the direction of the new facility and issues related to getting leaders for the board and a campaign committee.

Bylaw concerns

With only two board members remaining at WCS, it should technically be difficult to move forward. According the WCS bylaws the board should have seven to 10 members including four officers and a minimum of three to six members at large, who serve two-year staggered terms.

Any action taken by the board must have a majority vote of the present membership. “Minimum attendance necessary for such action shall be at least five members,” state the bylaws.

To nominate a new board volunteer, a committee of three board members must make the recommendations. In essence, with just Truitt and Kelly left on the board, they don’t have enough members to make a recommendation to recruit more.

“Any decision made in the last year and a half has been basically illegal,” alleged Spence, who also questioned the board’s ability to even sign a lease with Frog Pond.

Some have questioned the legality of how the board is operating, but most governing bodies are turning a blind eye unless complaints are filed or WCS is no longer living up to its expectations.

According to a 2011 charity report from the Oregon Department of Justice, WCS had $125,839 in revenues for 2011 and $41,811 in expenses. It also pays more than $50,000 in salaries to its two part-time employees. The group’s budget for 2013 is estimated at $110,000.

Jeff Manning of the Department of Justice said the state only becomes involved if there are complaints against a nonprofit, and no complaints have been filed against WCS. He also said there are legal requirements pertaining to charities and conflict of interest transactions, but the directors would need to have a financial interest in the transaction.

The city of Wilsonville has a vested interest in WCS. Last year the city gave WCS $29,253 for support, and this year $29,929 was budgeted. The city also contracts with WCS for its renter utility relief program, with $12,000 budgeted for direct renter assistance and $4,000 to cover administration costs.

According to Wilsonville Attorney Mike Kohlhoff, the city plans to enter into a three-year grant contract with WCS in September. But the city has no plans to address the bylaws issue as long as WCS continues to provide services.

“Because the amount has grown over the years and services have also evolved over the years, staff is currently reviewing the process and will be working with Wilsonville Community Sharing to ensure continuing accountability and transparency,” Public and Government Affairs Director Mark Ottenad wrote in a July 10 email to the Spokesman.

The grant contract would span three years and include terms such as audits and annual financial reviews. The contract must be reviewed by the city council and then will be signed by both parties.

Going forward

“Due to concerns that have been raised about equity in times allotted to each church, the board is taking a short pause to assess what is in the best interest of WCS and the clients we serve at this point,” read a statement from WCS. “We must be able to assure the wider community that our selection has been fair, objective and in the best interest of WCS and the clients we serve.”

Though Truitt admits some things could have been handled better, such as understanding the lease process, setting clearer boundaries and communicating better, he said board members did their best for a fair and objective process.

For Jay Puppo, it’s not enough.

“We have a history of a community taking care of our own,” he said. “It’s a great organization and yet this process has been marred, and I’m very concerned that the reputation of both the church and the organization is going to be damaged. I think that a new board needs to come in and take over the organization.”

“We hope that the community will continue to provide broad-based support for WCS as we move forward to build a wonderful new facility to meet the increased need for services to those who need our help,” wrote WCS in its statement.

For more information about Wilsonville Community Sharing, visit wilsonvillecommunitysharing.org.



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