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Time for SALT to End

Written By Editor on 11/4/17 | 11/4/17

 By Matthew Avitabile

Editor's Note: This article is analysis-- interjecting my own beliefs, clearly delineated. My six years involved in flood recovery, including five and a half as Middleburgh's Mayor partially informed my experiences below. A number of talks and interviews with current and former volunteers provided the remainder of the information.

My initial reaction to Schoharie Area Long Term's creation was positive. To combine a number of flood recovery organizations together, including Josh DeBartolo's Schoharie Recovery, seemed like a step in the right direction. There was fresh leadership at the top, between Josh, Sarah Goodrich, Diane Enders, Bill Kinisky, and several other key players.

However, the shine seemed to fade quicker than I expected. Even in 2012 and 2013, several flood organizations I was involved with scoffed at working with SALT. One organization, Southern Valley Recovery, had members that believed that SALT would serve to strangle flood recovery instead of develop it.

Regardless, the hard work in Middleburgh was an incredible challenge. We had dozens of volunteers step up over the years. During that sensitive time we traded ideas and even some resources with SALT. The Village was host to one of the first waves of Americorps VISTA volunteers, including Donald Osei-Owusu, who worked diligently with us for a year. The first set of volunteers did their best under the circumstances. Arcane federal rules prevented the VISTAs from doing a lot of the hands-on work in recovery, but we hoped their experience would bring in more volunteers and money to back them.

The second big wave of VISTAs included my friends Sheila Donegan and volunteer Doug Stinson. Sheila entered into the process quite excited for the opportunity to serve the community and the wider area. We discussed a number of projects for her to work on in Middleburgh. After training, she spent about a week in our office. Our long list of building repairs and business rehab soon fell by the wayside. She was pulled away from the initial tasks we planned out and instead placed on "fund development." It was a strange circumstance, but we managed to live with it. Doug had to quit due to (again) arcane rules not allowing VISTAs to earn more than their $1,000 per month stipend. Although work for these volunteers faded, SALT kept applying for them. One former volunteer said, “VISTAs were told essentially that their assignment descriptions were basically not accurate and written to get VISTAs, not to reflect what work they would actually do.”

I didn't realize it at the time, but it seemed like as the process of recovery was accelerating in Middleburgh it started declining at SALT. Josh DeBartolo, who selflessly gave two years of his life to the Valley, left in 2013 and began raising a family. About the same time, the focus of SALT shifted entirely. Several years later, SALT's Executive Director Sarah Goodrich described Josh to a curious VISTA as a "long term volunteer." It still bothers me to this day.

Little by little promises faded away in Middleburgh. A plan to help one business owner fix up his flood ravaged building fell apart with no volunteers or money exchanged. Another prospective business owner saw their grant amount from SALT halved from $10,000 to $5,000 with little explanation. One by one, the top volunteers involved after Irene moved on or died: Josh, Al Decker, Doug, Bill Kinisky, and more. One homeowner related to a volunteer he still hasn't received promised help fixing up their house and patio. A house showcased for a SALT recovery event and check presentation five years ago remains gutted. One friend of mine died waiting on promises from SALT almost six years after the flood. Starting around 2014, whenever we requested aid, it was clear that it wasn’t coming because SALT ran out of money for “unmet needs,” as they called it.

While doubts grew, I figured SALT still had some energy left in it to complete tasks. However, it soon appeared to me that SALT’s focus shifted to explicit grant farming-- seeking out grants to keep the organization going instead of for planned projects. Furthermore, as grant funding and donations shriveled, SALT kept its payroll fat. Josh worked for a year after Irene with no stipend. Local officials are lucky to make $5,000 in their positions. Sarah was retired before Hurricane Irene and is now sitting on a job that pays around $45,000 with benefits. I've served on the boards of several non-profits-- and it slowly became apparent to me that SALT’s finances were questionable at best.

Even as donations slowed, the third and fourth rounds of VISTAs came to the Schoharie Valley. There were still plenty of flood projects to do but no volunteers to do them. Soon, there were seven VISTAs crowded in SALT's office tinkering with their phones or computers. One former volunteer said, “for two months we played games everyday because there was nothing to do and there often wasn’t actual staff there.”

Precious little came out of this activity except projects explicitly meant to keep the organization-- and its salaries going. In late 2014 and into 2015, SUNY Cobleskill's President Marion Terenzio started the ambitious project that would eventually become the college's Institute-- intended for local economic growth. SALT came hat in hand. SALT injected itself into the Trails to Tales project, which included (in my opinion) hijacking a $250,000 grant intended for planning a multi-use trail. One person formerly involved on the project said, “I don’t think anyone uses” the established website. The trail project’s been sucked dry over years to enlongate salaries and keep the organization alive. A similar Route 30 project headed by Trustee Bill Morton on our Middleburgh Village Board made more progress for under $100 at the same time. Not a foot of trail is built and (in my opinion) it won't be until SALT gets the money it needs to keep paying its salaries. Another volunteer, Sheila Donegan told me, “They are still working on a 38-mile trail that they expect will promote business and tourism. They were talking about that in 2014 when I worked there, and they received provisional approval for a matching grant. They haven't done the work, there is no trail, and it hasn't produced any good.”

SALT also bucked norms by spending more than 25% of some intended grant funds for personnel costs-- something that would get a municipality strictly censured. By 2014 the organization was spending about 83% of their income on salaries. That year, it brought in $266,000 in revenue and spent $222,000 in compensation. In 2015 the group spent $181,000 in compensation-- and only brought in $153,000. Over 118% percent was spent on salaries! That same year, SALT's overall assets fell from $232,000 in January to $122,000 in December.

When belts tightened, the buck stopped with the lower parts of the agency. Volunteers found themselves without resources to back them up. The VISTA interns were forced to pay for their own coffee grounds. When the interns rebelled, Sarah went to far as to bring the issue to the SALT Board of Directors. All over something like $5 a week in coffee. Just this year the organization fired one employee (presumably due to lack of funds) by having her drive two hours to work on a Monday with a sealed envelope on her desk asking her to leave. SALT became desperate. In early 2016 it accepted funds raised to help Texas flood victims on the basis of remaining need. Around the same time other former funders dropped off one by one. Fundingwise, SALT entered into a potential death cycle.

Everything started coming to a head after I heard Sheila's musings entering into 2014 and 2015. She left her year of service feeling dejected and used to raise money as a volunteer sworn to a vow of poverty for salaries that made less and less sense. Still, I remained the good soldier and believed in the mission of flood recovery, even if not SALT’s step of the way.

Things took a large change last year. Exiting VISTA Tyler James needed a place to stay as he wound down his year term of service. He and I became fast friends and each privately realized we had similar thoughts on the group. A flurry of information was soon forthcoming. He and I reached out to over a dozen (at the time) current and former volunteers and soon came to a number of realizations. SALT was severely and intentionally misusing the VISTA program funded through the federal government not for the stated case of flood recovery (or the flashier "long term development" moniker) but instead as a means of grant farming and public relations. Between Tyler and I we spoke to about a dozen former VISTAs and volunteers who largely echoed the same sentiment. A large majority of the existing VISTAs signed a letter to Americorps stating so. One of the VISTAs told Americorps explicitly that one of the paid staff said that they don't "know what SALT's mission or direction is." I called Americorps’ office as a concerned citizen. They stopped sending the volunteers.

Finding the information was difficult to say the least. SALT (unintentionally or not) did not post their tax records beyond 2012 on their website. When Tim Knight (my friend and co-writer) did an article on the subject last year, SALT’s 2015 returns were under audit and not available. When Sarah thought that I was coming to discuss the issue, she assembled a half-dozen apologists to defend the group's actions. When our team launched the Schoharie News last year, there was an explicit embargo on us by several key figures out of specific fear we'd blow the whistle on well over a half million dollars in unjustified spending intended for flood victims.

Determined to give years of flood service credit, I asked to speak with Sarah last summer. In a closed-door meeting at my office, I brought up my misgivings. Sarah and I always got along before this but as soon as the meeting started an icy cool emerged. I told her that Middleburgh's recovery was accomplished for a much lower cost with effectively no salaries [disclaimer: I received a $3,500 stipend for service as Mayor that year] and that SALT had an opportunity to fade away gracefully. Instead, we talked for about an hour. Sarah's justifications were buzzword-laced and did nothing (in my opinion) to justify their actions. One example was the Trails to Tales website, which she said would bring in enough money to carry on a large portion of the group's expenses. I told her I had run a website that garnered over a million views and in that experience, the TtT site would be lucky to earn $1,000 in ad revenue annually. I could see some justification in her explanation, but ultimately I believe she understood the underlying flaws in her arguments and chose to ignore them in the service of self-interest.

Promises of projects around the area are belied by still-empty buildings across the Valley. Six years on, SALT draws salaries while every single other flood organization formed locally faded as funding and work did. The movement to a “sustainable” rebrand is one that is unnecessary. Middleburgh rebounded without a similar organization and certainly without the associated salaries.

I have seen this Valley rise. Since Irene, we had some of the best volunteers in our 300 year history. I do not write this article lightly and understand there will be consequences for myself and SALT. So many people gave so much of their money, time, and sweat for recovery-- including many unpaid volunteers at SALT. Their service is appreciated and I apologize in advance for any damage this does to the reputation of anyone that was unable to stop this. I believe that every single person involved with SALT's unpaid governing board is and was trying to help.

In my opinion, SALT's rebranding efforts are a sham meant to justify unsustainable salaries when hundreds of people are still suffering from the direct and indirect effects of Hurricane Irene. Several key public officials have stated so explicitly-- to save their reputations I will let them speak for themselves. However, I know more than most the work, guile, and more needed to rebuild a flood-damaged community. SALT intentionally milked the initial volunteerism and spirit of our communities to justify an organization that exists for the sake of existing.

I’ll let Sheila’s words close out the article. She is one of many former volunteers that spoke up (and if my count is correct, one of the majority of volunteers since the end of 2013 with similar concerns): “What I do know is that I am disappointed in what they have achieved over the last few years, compared to what they started out to do. It never occurred to me that this community organization began with a bunch of local volunteers and became a corporation with well-paid executives and staff.”

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Anonymous said...

Finally .... A newspaper that is truly researching an evil with verification of wrong doing and corruption instead of another "editor's opinion". These actions seem criminal to me and Goodrich should be held accountable. Taking funds earmarked for Texas relief is no less than despicable.

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