After two years of steady decline, ComLinks community action agency announced it plans to close.
"It appears to be our best option at this time, and we have agreed to move toward that," said ComLinks board President Joe Selenski.
Selenski said the plan is to dissolve the organization slowly, transferring its programs to other nonprofit groups with more resources and paying off its vendors as much as possible. That could last until the end of the year, he said.
Then, once ComLinks is officially dissolved, Selenski said the national network of community action agencies will step in and help start a new community action agency in the area at the grassroots level. That new organization would have a new board and different programs, Selenski said.
"It would be a brand-new operation that starts," Selenski said. "So it will continue on, and it will start over. It's just pushing a reset button."
He said that should help with the negative public perception ComLinks has developed in recent years and turn the organization's focus back to helping people.
In the meantime, Selenski said ComLinks is committed to creating a seamless transition of services to other agencies. He said officials have found other agencies ready to take over most of its remaining programs.
"In that respect, things are going very, very well," Selenski said.
He said there are three strong nonprofit groups that are interested in taking over ComLinks' gleaning and gardening programs, which help feed people who can't afford food, and its backpack program, which gives children in need supplies for school.
The state has intervened to help find other entities to administer ComLinks' weatherization program, which helps people without many resources prepare their homes for the long, cold North Country winters.
The last straw
The ComLinks board members discussed the idea of closing at a July meeting, but at the time, state representatives told them the state agencies they worked with would be supportive and help keep the organization going.
"Unfortunately, nothing tangible really arose from that conversation," Selenski said.
Since then, the state asked ComLinks to repay money that was spent in 2008-09 on the weatherization program, Selenski said. With ComLinks' already depleted bank accounts and used-up credit line, he said there was no way to continue after that.
"We just don't believe that we can make it week to week without sufficient background funding," Selenski said. "There's just no way that we can catch up here and provide quality services any longer."
In July 2010, the state comptroller's office produced a scathing report accusing former ComLinks CEO Nancy Reich of spending almost $100,000 in grant money slated to help the needy on things like massages, wine and lavish meals for herself. Reich was fired shortly after, and she agreed to pay $1,500 in restitution when she pleaded guilty to one felony count of grand larceny in December 2011.
The audit also named Brian Cassini, then head of the weatherization program, and Chief Financial Officer Brenda Mallette-Glennon in wrongdoing, but ComLinks kept them on, promoting Cassini to executive director. Mallette-Glennon resigned in June 2011, saying ComLinks couldn't afford her anymore, and the organization laid off Cassini this March.
ComLinks has been shedding programs since the audit came out to get to a point where it was financially solvent. First it shifted its domestic violence programming to a Plattsburgh-based nonprofit group that already provided those services in neighboring counties.
Over the last year, ComLinks officials have been working to transfer the organization's affordable housing interests to other organizations. Two weeks ago, Franklin County forgave about $22,500 in penalties and interest on the last two, in Saranac Lake, and Selenski said the state is now reviewing those transfers.
ComLinks has been working within its budget for a few years now, Selenski said, but it was too little, too late. He said there were some decisions made after the audit that were too optimistic, and that the organization couldn't recover from.
"It was a slippery slope that we fell down into," Selenski said. "Whatever mistakes we made a couple of years back, we're still recovering from them."