Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Meeker Out In Help Of Ojai Shakeup

Steve Bennett, Ventura County’s 1st District Supervisor, and Lisa Meeker, at the opening of the West Campus on Oct. 5, 2007

By Nao Braverman
Lisa Meeker, director of Help of Ojai’s West Campus, and a longtime employee of the Ojai nonprofit group, was asked to step down, Monday.
Her position was a cost-cutting measure to alleviate some of the financial hardships the organization has been experiencing for the past year and a half, said Help of Ojai’s executive director J.R. Jones.
With a little more than $400,000 in the bank just a year and half ago, Help of Ojai’s finances are currently in dire straits, with staff members struggling to cover day to day operations, according to Jones.
He attributed the loss of funds to lack of significant donations.
“In the past we had large amounts from bequests, and we haven’t had any in the past couple of years.” he explained.
Such significant donations, supported by smaller grants, allowed the organization to run programs with costs that overran profits, according to Meeker.
“Historically our services were provided at deficit,” she said.
But somewhere between the end of Marlene Spencer’s tenure, and J.R. Jones’ entry, with a short term directorship of Debbie McConnell in the midst of the two, the nonprofit’s reserve budget dwindled.
During that time the organization was expanded to include the former Honor Farm property, now, Help of Ojai’s West Campus.
Meeker, who had been working as Help’s development and resources director, expanded her position as director of the new West Campus, overseeing the transformation of the old Honor Farm into a community resource center and renting out the additional space to mostly non-profit tenants.
In late January a new development director was hired and Meeker focused entirely developing the West Campus.
But as the organization’s existing programs began to suffer from the fiscal hardships, the staff and board of directors made the decision to sacrifice Meeker’s position in order to maintain existing programs, according to Jones.
In early January, a budget crisis had the organization’s administration threatening to shut down the Oak Tree House, a cardinal adult day care program, which was saved from its death bed by an anonymous donor.
“To get our operations budget healthy again we had to make cuts where we would impact the fewest number of clients,” he said. “Since the West Campus is new we decided to focus on our existing programs, and put any further development of that project on hold until more funding is at hand.”
Cutting out the director’s position along with her administrative assistant saves the organization approximately $80,000 a year, he said.
Meanwhile, the West Campus will be run entirely on volunteer assistance, of which there is no shortage, said Jones.
All the existing tenants, including the he Ojai Raptor Center, the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, both the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament and Ojai Music Festival which are renting storage space, and two private tenants are all secure.
“We have a 35-year lease so we are not in a sprint,” said Jones. “We will continue to renovate the property but put any further developments on hold until additional funds are available. “
Ed Martel, a seven-year volunteer with Help, attributes, the fiscal shortfalls to Help of Ojai’s recent expansion to West Campus.
“It’s the worst thing they ever did,” he said.
Martel points to a board member’s promise that at least eight individuals would donate $25,000 to the West Campus. Of the prospective eight, only the board member who spoke actually came up with $25,000, according to Martel.
But despite such criticisms, the West Campus was able to raise $150,000 in a combination of grants, general contributions and profits, said Meeker.
Some significant donations came once the details of the plans were confirmed, she said.
After paying about $136,000, many of which were one time expenses, the new West Campus made a net profit of about $14,000, said Meeker and Jones.
Though Help has promised the county a $1 million renovation project, to be carried out over a five-year period, Meeker expects a bulk of that to come from volunteers, of which the West Campus has not yet experienced a shortage.
The organization is bringing in about $6,000 a month from tenants, she said.
Jones confirmed that Meeker’s position was not being eliminated because of a failure of the West Campus program, but rather an overall fiscal problem at Help.
“We have completed phase one of the program, and Lisa has done a wonderful job,” he said.
As for the future of West Campus, further developments will be put on hold, but the current tenants are there to stay, to be managed by volunteers, said Jones.
Meeker maintains that the expansion was an important move for Help.
“I still strongly believe it was the key to keep the organization alive,” she said. “Change, if planned out well, is a good thing.”
She hopes to move on to an organization that is more entrepreneurial and more embracing of change than fearful.
As for the future of West Campus, she hopes that the fruits of her work will survive without the management staff.
“Countywide the community has recognized it as a really innovative program,” she said. “It has been an exhilarating time.”


Anonymous said...

Well it looks like Ed Martell should have a new career as a psychic; never mind that he has been fed all his info by the bizness manager who will never let a director succeed at HELP because she is so bitter at not being Marlene Spencer's replacement. HELP of Ojai isn't in the same league as the search dog organization but some former employees from that non-profit now employed by HELP will make sure it all goes to hell in a handbasket anyhow or sue HELP somewhere down the road. Did JR Jones take a cut in his salary or a reduction in his vacation time? Will Barbara Mark have a paid position now? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anonymous said...

HELP of Ojai seems to have been floundering ever since Marlene Spencer left. How sad that a few people, whoever they are, have managed to turn the operations of a respectable and respected organization into such a series of ill-advised fiascos.

New ideas aren't always good ideas, and new people don't always seem to know that. At least some of them seem to have forgotten the adage "If it ain't broken, don't fix it".

HELP of Ojai was never broken until Marlene left. Sans interference, it would have continued for years on the momentum she created. That's the way she made things, and that's how she left them. Now, it seems as if a lot of her hard work was for naught. It's almost as if a bunch of little kids have taken Mommy's alarm clock apart, and now they don't know how to put it back together. Who ARE these people?

Anonymous said...

We cannot believe that snippy woman who seems to be in charge of the Help vans still has a job. She is pushy, rude and seems to enjoy the one advantage she has over most people, which is that she is taller than just about everybody. The whole organization needs a good housecleaning.

Anonymous said...

Too much good has been done for
needy seniors to let HELP be
bled dry. Suggest an emergency wisdom circle convene of valley's most creative spirits to
problem solve in time-honored
medicine circle of oral tradition.
Refine results and find a way out
of crisis- other wise your
current or future elder will
not have this vital place
and will fade away lonely...