Edison / Liberty City

Liberty City’s popular Tacolcy Center facing uncertain future

 

Former Belafonte TACOLCY Center employees are alleging financial mismanagement at the long-time Liberty City community center.

ngreen@MiamiHerald.com

The Belafonte TACOLCY Center, a decades-old nonprofit agency based in one of Miami’s poorest communities, is facing a financial crisis that leaves its future in doubt.

In an email obtained by the Miami Herald, former chief operating officer Hesterline Hall told the nonprofit agency’s board of directors that the Liberty City center has thousands of dollars in unpaid bills and insufficient funds to pay employees.

Hall accuses Belafonte TACOLCY CEO Taj Brown and the center’s board of directors of ignoring the impending fiscal crisis brought to their attention a year ago.

“Last year, I shared and showed the board at every meeting we were spending much more than we were taking in,” wrote Hall, who was fired in May. At that time, the agency was still in the black, according to the email.

Hall confirmed she wrote the email but declined to comment further.

Brown did not respond to calls or emails for comment.

Another former employee also penned a letter that touched on the the financial health of the agency founded in Liberty City in 1966.

In a letter addressed to The Children’s Trust CEO Charles Auslander, Debra Manning, a former assistant program director, wrote that money is so tight that staff members are being asked to hold off on basic purchases like toilet paper. The Children’s Trust partially funds an after-school program at TACOLCY.

In another example of the agency’s shrinking revenues, Hall said in her email that a $15,000 grant from Comcast, which was to fund a new senior literacy program, was used to cover payroll. The literacy program has yet to be launched.

Meanwhile, the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation, according to former employees and a board member. The inspector general investigates mismanagement, abuse of power, and waste in county programs and contracts.

As a matter of policy, the inspector general does not confirm or deny any actions it takes.

TACOLCY board member Hattie Willis told the Miami Herald that an attorney for the center advised her not to discuss the ongoing OIG investigation. She declined to address the specific allegations in Hall’s email.

“I’m not going to give comment about anything going on at TACOLCY. I thought you were calling about something good,” she told a reporter before hanging up the telephone.

TACOLCY board chair Joshua Jones also declined comment.

According to minutes from an August TACOLCY meeting obtained by the Miami Herald, board members opened their own investigation into Brown amid allegations he used the nonprofit group’s money to rent a car and pay for gasoline, racking up charges totaling more than $8,000.

Then, former board chair Anne Manning recommended firing Brown. The five-member board voted 3-2 to keep him as CEO after “findings showed no inappropriate use of funds.”

Anne Manning, no relation to Debra Manning, cast one of the dissenting votes and later resigned.

When reached by the Herald, she declined to comment, citing the ongoing OIG investigation.

TACOLCY, an acronym for “The Advisory Committee of Liberty City Youth,” was created to provide educational and recreational resources to families in the neighborhood with a specific focus on young people. It relies on public funding, grants and fundraisers to finance its operations.

According to the center’s most recent tax filing, in 2012 TACOLCY had a $1.2 million budget.

Records show the city of Miami pays the center $86,675 to operate a recreational sports and cultural awareness program for Liberty City young adults. Miami-Dade County gave $65,000 in grants from 2012 to February 2014.

TACOLCY also receives funding from the Children’s Trust and United Way.

The Children’s Trust is aware of the ongoing OIG investigation, said Emily Cardenas, the agency’s communications manager.

“We are limited as to what we can say because we need to give that investigation an opportunity to play itself out,” she said. “We are fully aware of Belafonte TACOLCY’s challenges. We regularly audit all of our funded providers, Belafonte TACOLCY is no different.”

Liberty City residents say they have been asking for the center for months to open up its books to allay concerns that the longtime neighborhood institution on Northwest 61st Street and Ninth Avenue will shut down because of financial problems.

“That center has been in that area for our youth since back in the [19]60’s. It has done well for our youth,” said Bettye Stokeling, a member of Concerned Citizens for the Preservation of TACOLCY. “It means a whole lot to the community. It means a lot to me.”

Stokeling said she and about a dozen other community members formed the concerned citizens group after they learned of the inspector general investigation in September. She said the group has been unsuccessful in getting answers about the financial health and future of TACOLCY from Brown or the board.

“Something is happening, and they’re not letting anyone know,” she said. “If it closes down like J.E.S.C.A., the community will be hurt.”

The James E. Scott Community Association, or J.E.S.C.A., a social-services agency in Liberty City, which traced its roots to 1925, went bankrupt and was liquidated in 2010 after years of mounting debt and financial mismanagement.

Stokeling said she also is concerned about the number of TACOLCY employees who have left in recent months. At least six employees quit or were fired.

Stephen Gilmore, a program coordinator, said Brown fired him in May. He said he sent an email to the board in August criticizing Brown’s “lack of leadership.”

“All they said was, ‘We support Brown and everything that he does.’ The staff feels powerless against him,” Gilmore said.

Manning, the former assistant program director, quit in April. She said Brown made the workplace unbearable.

“That agency is a gold mine for our community because the people in the community love TACOLCY,” she said. “We call our kids TACOLCY angels; they deserve the best. They’re not getting that.”

In the months leading to her departure, Manning said employees were told that the center may have trouble meeting its payroll.

“I was told a couple of times, we probably weren’t going to get paid because they didn’t know if we would have the funds,” she said.

In Debra Manning’s letter to Auslander, she thanked him and The Children’s Trust for believing in the Liberty City community.

She also warned: “Belafonte TACOLCY, as we know it, will soon no longer be if drastic changes are not made.”

Read more Edison / Liberty City stories from the Miami Herald

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