SAAA may hire firm to boost its fundraising

Posted: December 8, 2012

The Winchester Star

FRONT ROYAL — The Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging’s financial situation has stabilized and it is meeting its monthly bills.

But hundreds of thousands of dollars in old debt continues to weigh down the agency.

Members of the SAAA board of directors took a step toward resolving that issue Friday.

By an 8-0 vote, they decided to hire BDI Consulting LLC to perform fundraising activities for the organization. The hiring is contingent upon a positive reference check for the company and the ability of agency staff members to negotiate an acceptable contract.

The staff is expected to provide a status update to board members in a week.

John Hudson, the board’s chairman, said the agency’s goal is to have BDI help raise an additional $600,000 to $700,000 within 18 to 24 months to eliminate the old debt.

“We’re looking for money above and beyond our normal fundraising,” he said, “and we’re focused on unrestricted donations. We’re trying to deal with a large amount of past-due money that we have no current ability to chip away at.”

Staff members have been given “room to negotiate terms” with the company, he added.

The SAAA board learned that the agency was in financial trouble in August 2011 when 81 unmailed checks to vendors, totaling nearly $265,000, were discovered.

The agency didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover those checks.

A state agency investigated SAAA’s finances and found major financial irregularities. Helen Cockrell, the agency’s president and chief executive officer, and Jim Shaffer, its finance director, were fired for their roles in the matter.

In a civil countersuit, the SAAA accused Cockrell of fraud and/or embezzlement.

The agency board voted in August to settle the lawsuit, with no money changing hands. Hudson said the group was confident that the SAAA would have proved its case had it gone to trial, but it would have accumulated legal fees it might never recover.

Cockrell filed for bankruptcy days after the suit was dropped.

The Virginia State Police have been investigating the agency’s finances for more than 14 months to determine if any crimes were committed. No charges have been filed, but the investigation is not complete.

In recent months, the agency struggled to pay its bills at times after donations plummeted.

But Jonathan Price, the SAAA’s director of fiscal operations, reported to the board that accounts payable, taxes and 401(k) contribution payments are all current.

Cindy Palmer, the agency’s interim president and CEO, said office staff members have picked up the slack to cover the workload of the 8.5 employees who left the agency during the past year.

That payroll savings and other cost-cutting measures, Hudson said, are helping the agency’s cash flow.

Palmer said operations have improved to the point that it no longer has a waiting list for clients seeking home meal delivery.

After weeks with little online presence, Price said, a revamped website named shenandoahaaa.com that he designed is operational and an improvement over the previous site. Because the work was completed in-house, the agency paid no additional cost.

After the meeting, Hudson said that despite its debt, the SAAA is in much better shape than it was a year ago.

At that time, officials hadn’t determined the amount the organization owed, and daily operations were a struggle.

“I think next year is going to be a really good year for this agency,” he told fellow board members. “We are definitely on the road to a brighter agency.”

Attending the meeting at the SAAA headquarters were Chairman John Hudson and board members James Brinkmeier, Violet Carter, James Edwards, Ann Holsinger, Wanda Shoemaker, Angela Whitacre and John Woodward. Vice-Chairman Travis Clark and board members Mari-Ane Fowler and Teresa Strohmeyer were absent.

— Contact Vic Bradshawat vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com