Dorchester Seniors kerfuffle envelops council meeting

  • Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Marvin Johnson, board member and critic of Dorchester Seniors, addresses County Council.

Discontent surrounding Dorchester Seniors, Inc., that has been percolating behind the scenes for several weeks finally burst into view at Wednesday’s county council meeting, but with no clear resolution.
Instead, Council Chairman Larry Hargett, whose appointee Marvin Johnson spoke at length against the group’s management and legal status, gaveled the discussion closed as Johnson and Councilman Bill Hearn lobbed accusations across the room at each other.
A visibly angry Hearn took Johnson to task for calling the group’s management “trash” and said he couldn’t let Johnson operate in kangaroo court fashion and tarnish the reputations of people who have put years of their lives into the organization, then simply walk out of the room without discussion.
Johnson started to leave after his time on the agenda ended and before Board Chairman Robert Ford began to speak, but he remained in the room after Hearn requested he stay.
Johnson said he wasn’t calling individuals “trash” but the group’s procedures.
The county shouldn’t be giving money to a private entity, and if it does, it should have a contract for services, Johnson said.
“Mr. Chairman, these are all great suggestions that should maybe be brought up at a board meeting,” Hearn snapped as Hargett banged the gavel, referring to the board’s report that Johnson had attended only 12 of 41 meetings.
Johnson, however, said he has attended committee meetings and the board didn’t count his attendance there.
Johnson, Hargett and Councilman Willie Davis, council’s ex-officio on the board, have raised several concerns, though the men aren’t necessarily pointing out the same issues. Among the issues:
•    The lack of diversity amongst supervisory staff
•    The question of whether Margaret Goodwine would be reappointed to the board
•    The rental fees charged to people who want to use the facilities for private events
•    The extent of the group’s reserve fund
•    Employees’ participation in the state retirement system
Dorchester Seniors is a private nonprofit that receives funding from the county in the form of dedicated millage, Trident Area Agency on Aging, Trident United Way and other groups and individuals.
Per state law, local councils on aging that receive funding from the lieutenant governor’s Office on Aging are eligible to participate in the state retirement system.
The lieutenant governor’s office receives federal funds that it distributes to regional aging offices, including Trident Area Agency on Agency, which then in turn distribute the funds to local groups like Dorchester Seniors.
Dorchester Seniors then runs the senior centers, which offer fitness centers, classes, socialization opportunities and meals at the centers, but also distributes meals to seniors in their homes, provides basic in-home aid and transportation to and from the centers.
Johnson told council that Dorchester Seniors has $850,000 in a reserve fund from taxpayer money that “has no business being there.”
Tony Oglietti, the treasurer and chairman of the finance committee, said the reserve fund will help the group either expand its small St. George center or build a new center in the Summerville area, as demand is growing.
In addition, he said the group has a $116,000 deficit this year that will be covered by the reserve fund and expects a deficit for the next two years because Trident United Way is cutting funding.
Trident United Way recently narrowed its funding priorities to focus on education, financial stability and health.
Davis criticized the rental fees the group charges and the lack of diversity among supervisors.
“I wouldn’t say we have a racist group. I wouldn’t say we have a perfect union, either,” Davis said.
Ford said he’s tried to find minorities for supervisory jobs, but they have been unwilling to take them, mostly because of the pay.
“I’m a child of the Sixties. I know racism when I see it,” said Ford, who is black.
Davis didn’t completely buy Ford’s explanation. He found it hard to believe that none of the in-home aides, who help with light housekeeping and cooking, was interested in a promotion.
“Do all the minorities have to clean the rooms?” Davis asked.
Davis noted he was talking about diversity, not racism, but Ford said Johnson had specifically brought up the accusation of racism.
Davis was also upset that Goodwine wasn’t reappointed to the board. She had been Councilman Kenny Waggoner’s appointee. When Councilman George Bailey won the seat, he decided to appoint someone from the St. George area, he said.
There was then discussion of electing Goodwine to the board from the membership. That failed to occur, a point of contention with each side saying the other didn’t follow through.
However, Ford told council Wednesday that there’s another opening in January and Goodwine will be elected then.
Dorchester Seniors isn’t the only nonprofit to receive funding from the county. Children in Crisis also receives millage from the county, and it doesn’t have a contract, though council does review and approve its budget each year.
Nor do any groups that receive accommodations tax funding have contracts with the county, according to county staff.
At budget time each year, the outside groups that receive millage come to the county with their requests.
These groups include the library, the school districts, the fire districts, Trident Technical College, the Dorchester County Career and Technology Center, Children in Crisis and Dorchester Seniors.
The municipalities set their own millage and the county merely collects the tax and passes the money along.
Bailey and Councilman Jay Byars spoke briefly during the meeting, saying concerns about diversity should be addressed but not by accusing the board or management of racism.
Councilman David Chinnis, in Europe on business, observed the meeting via Skype. Afterward, he said he stayed quiet because the other councilmen said everything he would have said.

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