Feds cry foul over volunteer program

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 20, 2013 05:01 pm

The federal government has ordered Curry County to pay $38,604 — and possibly three times that amount — in Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP) grant money, alleging the funds were not accounted for properly.

Commissioners, however, see the issue as a misunderstanding of federal RSVP program requirements, notably how time cards are used for various projects.

“It’s a huge problem,” Commissioner Susan Brown said in a Dec. 5 meeting. “The county can’t support this type of money and continue a program that needs county support.”

Commissioners held an executive meeting Thursday to consult with County Attorney Jerry Herbage about the “legal rights and duties of a public body … litigation likely to be filed,” the agenda reads. Afterward, they opened the meeting in regular session and agreed to hire the public accounting firm Moss Adams to examine the documentation — and buy them a little time before the Jan. 4 deadline to remit the funds.

What went wrong?

Brown, who serves as the liaison between the RSVP department and the commissioner board, outlined in the Dec. 5 meeting the history of the alleged violations.

 The BOC believes the problems stem from matters of semantics, miscommunications and changes in the program’s administration and the BOC board in the past four years.

RSVP is a program funded partially with federal grants through the Corporation for National Service (CNS), that provides opportunities for retirees to “participate fully in the life of their community through significant volunteer service,” the organization’s website reads. Curry County’s RSVP program has been active for 30 years. Work, which depends on community need and the talents of the volunteers involved, can include teaching English to non-English speakers, helping build homes, tutoring and mentoring disadvantaged youth and other activities.

According to Director Vicky McGuiness, 226 volunteers put in more than 32,000 hours of work this year.

The severity of the audit came to the attention of the county commissioners during their Dec. 5 meeting, in which it was disclosed that grant money given to the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program (RSVP) had not been properly accounted for.

In question is three years worth of grants, each totalling $38,000.

According to Brown, CNS official conducted a “site visit” in 2009 to look at the local program and evaluate its effectiveness. In its report, it listed seven deficiencies.

Then-commissioner Bill Waddle said they’d been addressed, but a subsequent “site visit” in 2011 got them into trouble, Brown said, when officials announced they’d be revisiting on a certain date, flew here from Philadelphia and were “denied access” to the commissions and staff. Commissioners, it was noted, were all booked in back-to-back meetings.

“The auditors are extremely frustrated, disappointed,” Brown said. “They felt their requests, their concerns, had gone unanswered for a long, long time.”

This summer, a full audit was conducted and a report outlined the same concerns as those listed in prior years.

They stem from the way money was spent in the program — specifically why reports did not explicitly delineate how money from individual grants were spent in each of RSVPs programs.

“You’re supposed to separate federal money from non-federal money, federal matches from non-federal matches, SHIBA (Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance) money …” Brown said. “Everything that’s federally funded has to be accounted for separately, and that hasn’t happened.

“It says ‘staff time sheets do not reflect actual hours spent on grant activities,’” Brown added. “It was all so preventable; it’s unfortunate.”

Now, the federal agency wants the costs from each grant broken down and shown how they were spent in each program for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 years. Additionally, they are demanding the repayment of grant funds totalling $38,406.

“The report said all the findings from the 2009 visit had never been addressed,” Brown said. “Nothing had been done. They’d been requesting for four years for these things to be done, and when they came to this (summer’s) audit, they really threw the book at RSVP.”

Blood from a turnip

The county doesn’t have $38,000 available — much less the possibility of $100,000-plus — to reimburse the CNS. And if the public accountants from Moss Adams can’t untangle the confusion, CNS could shut the local program down. The requirement of repaying the grant or ending the program could bode poorly for future grants from federal agencies, as well.

Commissioners David Brock Smith and David Itzen said they were surprised at the news.

Itzen said he thought the violations found were new and only discovered under new criteria developed for the RSVP program nationwide. Smith thought the program was being reorganized at the federal level.

“In the past, we could have a volunteer fill out a form, fill in their birthday, sign it and that was good,” McGuiness said. “Now you have to have proof: their driver’s license, copies of it, in case someone’s trying to say they’re 68 instead of 48; I don’t know.

“It’s a whole bunch of little things put into one big thing and it’s really overwhelmed a lot of us.”

She said the previous RSVP director, Sharon Mather, “had issues” with the methods of “splitting out” the various pots of grant money.

“There was SHIBA, and a match, the RSVP grant; they’ve always been an issue,” McGuiness said. “Apparently, we’ve come to this point.” 

“I’m really distressed by this,” Itzen said. “Right from the beginning, none of this came to light. Vicky didn’t bring it up, there’s nothing in the file. You said the letter from Waddle to the feds said everything was fine. The feds didn’t notify us by email or a telephone call.”

They agreed that money was not misspent, but that expenses weren’t correctly posted to corresponding programs.

“I think they’re on fairly weak ground,” Itzen said. “There was a failure to notify us from year to year — as the (current) liaison, I would have jumped on it immediately. We had no clue. Things appeared fine. The indication from the previous commission was that everything was taken care of. How would we have known?”

Commissioners hope officials at Moss Adams can debunk CNS’ findings or mediate reconciliation and differences in the different interpretations of the grant requirements.