Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Monroe County set out to build up nonprofits in communities of need. It's not going well

A blown-up screen capture of one of the emails RAW-NY sent to the county shows the words and phrases "exhausted," "want to be paid yesterday," "plead with you."
A blown-up screen capture of one of the emails RAW-NY sent to the county shows the words and phrases "exhausted," "want to be paid yesterday," "plead with you."

Ann Graham had maxed out her nonprofit’s credit line and nearly emptied its bank account when she sent a desperate email to Monroe County.

“We are simply at your mercy in this situation and can’t do anything but plead with you to consider the urgency of our circumstances,” the CEO of the local Re-Entry Association of Western New York wrote this past December.

The group connects people who were formerly incarcerated to job training, mental health and housing support. And the county was providing money to help it expand.

But of the $533,500 she billed for the previous eight months of work, the county had reimbursed only $195,000.

Ann Graham, president and CEO of Reentry Association of Western New York
Ann Graham, president and CEO of Re-entry Association of Western New York

“We need funds to make payroll,” Graham wrote.

The county offered varied responses. One explained the delay was because staffers had been diverted to other unspecified priority projects; another questioned why her nonprofit operated on such a shoestring budget. The county has since explained that Graham submitted incomplete vouchers, but Graham claimed — back in December, and now — that the county gave her no notice that it required additional material.

RAW-NY was part of a laudable and highly ambitious effort by the county to steer $75 million in federal pandemic relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into the hands of community nonprofits — mainly small, grassroots organizations. But a year or more in, things have not run smoothly.

The most public problem thus far has been with the Community Resource Collaborative, which received the largest single award, $7.2 million, and funneled the money to roughly a dozen other organizations known collectively as the Neighborhood Collaborative Project (NCP).

The timeline was aggressive. Most of the players were inexperienced with this level of funding. And the effort has ended up ensnarled in a process suffering from delay and dysfunction that has snared a variety of nonprofits, large and small — groups like RAW-NY, Beyond the Sanctuary, Foodlink, the Father Tracy Center and Cameron Community Ministries.

Graham furloughed her eight employees and shut down in March — still owed more than $340,000.

Community Resource Collaborative, headed by Anthony Hall, is being investigated by the county for failure to keep financial records or complete its services as the fiscal agent for the Neighborhood Collaborative Project.

After closing the doors of RAW-NY, Graham received a call from Assistant County Executive Anthony Plonczynski-Figueroa apologizing for the delay. The county dispensed some of the money owed a short time later, and she reopened.

But the county continues to wrestle with managing its ARPA initiative. And there is ongoing concern about the strain being placed on community nonprofits — particularly these smaller organizations.

The Neighborhood Collaborative Project drew headlines in February when the county halted payment amid mounting concern from member organizations about missing reimbursements. County Executive Adam Bello pledged to “get to the bottom of what happened ... and make sure that we get these organizations back on track” — to minimize impact on groups that he said were “performing lifesaving work throughout the community.”

Simeon Banister
Provided photo
Simeon Banister

“The county was doing something that they have not historically done,” said Simeon Banister, president and CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation. “Kudos to the Bello administration, I think for at least being willing to try to engage with smaller organizations. And I think that they thought that this was a format that they could do that effectively. And that's what makes it such a tragic situation.”

The county ultimately laid blame for issues with the neighborhood groups on the Community Resource Collaborative but has yet to provide any assessment of its own role in the larger program.

“My hope is that we don't walk away from these organizations that in many ways are the victim of malfeasance,” Banister said, speaking specifically of the CRC. “We need to continue to invest in them.”

A trove of documents released by the county last month shows that well before CRC’s funding was cut off and it shut down, some of the organizations had complained to the county about not getting paid. And not all of them were part of the NCP.

The county’s rollout

Organizations in the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) program are still reeling from the CRC debacle.

CRC was tasked with distributing its $7.2 million share of ARPA money over four years, serving as an intermediary between the county and the organizations comprising the NCP. But the county had paid out only $1.1 million to CRC when everything shut down in February.

Timeline of events

Monroe County received $144 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help it recover from the wide-reaching effects of the pandemic.

The county awarded more than half the money to 28 nonprofits, large and small. Recipients include Foodlink, Re-Entry Association of Western New York (RAW-NY) and the Community Resource Collaborative, on behalf of a dozen neighborhood nonprofits.

Here’s how things unraveled:

  • September 2023: CRC starts missing payments to neighborhood groups. 
  • December 2023: RAW-NY complains that the county also is behind on reimbursements. By now others, including Foodlink, also are not getting paid. 
  • January 2024: More complaints arise that the county hasn’t processed reimbursements. CRC starts bouncing checks. 
  • February: County freezes CRC funds.  
  • March: The county announces CRC is likely insolvent and cannot account for $243,907 in reimbursements the county provided. Nonprofits under CRC start shuttering affected operations. RAW-NY closes temporarily. 
  • April: County taps Starbridge Services to replace CRC and issues partial payments to nonprofits but has unpaid vouchers dating to October. 

In its application, CRC stated that the goal of the project was to shift service providers back into neighborhoods, build capacity, and create a prototype for varied funding streams.

“Beyond 2026, this will be the model for neighborhood centers,” the group wrote. “These centers will once again become community gathering places to inspire, support, advocate, and create strong legacies for their residents.”

It was an admirable endeavor.

“We need to come back to the neighborhoods,” said Olivia Kassoum-Amadou, Cameron’s executive director of Cameron Community Ministries, an NCP member organization. “Let the communities control what they want in their neighborhoods and how they want to do things and have a say in it. So, the idea was wonderful.”

Cameron used its grant funding to launch the Cameron Community Kitchen program, a program offering culinary arts training. That program is now on hold as the organization awaits funding.

NCP was an unusual structure. The dozen agencies who were part of it were mostly nonprofits, but some were for-profits, including C3 Consulting, which served as the lead project consultant for the group. In emails sent to the county’s contract compliance monitor Dylan Welch, C3’s Jocelyn Basley had raised concerns about reimbursements beginning in December.

“Thought I would've received an acknowledgement or reply to my email from yesterday,” Basley wrote in a Jan. 5 email to Welch. “As you can imagine, our partner agencies are concerned about their October expense reimbursement payment. Please let us know when you have forwarded the revised invoice to the Comptroller's office for payment processing.”

Separately, Graham, in an interview, expressed concern over the county’s handling of ARPA grants.

“The team over at the county, I don’t know this, but it seems to me like this is new,” Graham said. “The team is new, the department is new, and this is the first time they’ve done this.”

Those the county put in charge of overseeing its ARPA grants include staffers with degrees in economics, philosophy and international studies, political science and law, according to the LinkedIn profiles. None had a background in accounting. One had last worked teaching English to non-speakers and providing customer service in a student financial aid office.

The county transferred the program from its planning department to finance department sometime last year.

In written responses to questions, the county denies it has missed any reimbursement payments and said that any delayed payments were the result of insufficient voucher information or annual budgets that were not updated.

But the Neighborhood Collaborative and RAW-NY are not alone.

Foodlink — an established nonprofit working to end hunger — also is having issues. Foodlink received $1.9 million for a multi-year project providing free meals to additional locations in Rochester and several suburbs with growing poverty rates. But the nonprofit hasn’t been paid for the fourth quarter of last year and hasn’t been able to submit vouchers for this year because the county hasn’t signed off on Foodlink’s budget.

Foodlink’s kitchen continues to produce meals with this project as a small part of its operation.

What went wrong

What happened inside the county’s management of the program remains unclear.

Upon the release of the documents, a county spokesperson reached out to WXXI News, offering a sit-down interview with Bello. After several cancellations, the county agreed to answer a series of written questions. While it answered some questions directly, it avoided others.

For example, the county had deemed CRC a “high-risk” because of its inexperience with handling large grants. Asked whether there had been any concerns about other “high-risk” recipients to date, the county response read:

A forensic review of Community Resource Collaborative found the groups that were supposed to get the money are still collectively owed $243,907.

“The County continues to work with all ARPA recipients to effectively monitor, engage and ensure the success of the program spending more time with those that are classified as high risk.”

With that designation comes a requirement for additional monitoring on the part of the county.

The county did perform a “desk audit” of CRC on Dec. 1, and said it had “extensive monthly contact” with CRC and NCP organizations, including well after CRC stopped paying the neighborhood groups. The county said it “cannot speculate as to why someone did not report the payment issue sooner.”

The forensic review report determined CRC is likely insolvent and cannot account for $243,907 in reimbursements the county provided. Federal and state authorities are investigating.

A kid, wearing a paper crown and facing away from the camera, high fives Olivia Kassoum-Amadou, executive director of Cameron House.
Max Schulte
Olivia Kassoum-Amadou, executive director of Cameron House, works with students from Cameron’s after school program on anti violence posters for the 9th Annual Peace Walk in the Lyell-Otis neighborhood of Rochester.

Tina Paradiso, the former chief operating officer of the CRC, has been a central figure in the saga, with organizations under the Neighborhood Collaborative Project’s umbrella pointing the finger at her for mismanagement.

Paradiso is largely absent from email communications between the county and ARPA recipients.

According to the forensic report, CRC received a $346,138 advance from the county on May 15, shortly after the contract was approved, and it used the money to begin acting in its fiduciary role. In the intervening months, the agency also took out loans and lines of credit. But somehow it spent almost all of it. Records show that, by late October, CRC was playing catch-up and allegedly comingling funds to do so. Loans went unpaid, and disbursements began to fall through.

During this time, CRC hired Anthony Hall as chief executive officer, replacing Paradiso. Its board also dissolved. Paradiso kept sole financial control of CRC when she became COO. The county acknowledged it was unaware that CRC did not have a board.

Neither Hall nor Paradiso responded to a request for comment.

Beatriz LeBron is executive director of the Father Tracy Advocacy Center, an NCP member that is currently short $25,517.

LeBron said Paradiso had dodged questions from NCP organizations about the reimbursements for months until late January, when she finally offered checks covering the lost funds to some NCP organizations. The checks bounced.

The county cut ties with the previous administrator after agencies said they weren't getting paid.

“That was when I said to (Anthony Hall) you need to notify the county,” LeBron said. “I think Anthony was thinking, because the county released the money, that they were going to find the money.”

Last week, the administration announced it had selected Starbridge Services as the new fiscal agent for the Neighborhood Collaborative project, pending approval by the Monroe County Legislature. Starbridge is unlikely to take the reins for another month — but it's unclear what policies have changed, what safeguards have been put in place, and what the future of the program will look like.

The fallout

Banister and the Community Foundation’s lone tie-in here is that it provided a grant to Sankofa Family Counseling, a BIPOC, woman-owned business providing mental health services in communities on the margins, particularly for Black women. Sankofa had CRC manage those funds and some $10,000 allegedly is now unaccounted for, as the CRC is accused of comingling funds.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement,” he said of the potential to expand those services. “And a lot of the organizations that were even part of the Neighborhood Collaborative Project are similarly organizations that are small, that are trying to do really important work with that kind of trust and credibility from the community.

“So, I'm just really concerned that the outcome here is that we reflexively go back to the situation that has defined philanthropy for a long time, which is not investing in organizations, which is overestimating some of the potential risks,” he continued. “And again, not providing the kind of resources that are necessary in communities — particularly communities of color — that have been under-invested.”

Provided photo

At the start of an interview with WXXI News on April 11, LeBron was on the way to the bank.

Her ATM card for Father Tracy Center’s account at ESL has been blocked since late January, when the check from Paradiso bounced. Between working with the center, dealing with the aftermath of the CRC debacle, and serving in her other role as a commissioner on the Rochester City School District Board of Education, she hadn’t had a chance to fix it.

“I just hate this,” she said. “For the public, you are all just dealing with this now. But for us, we’ve been dealing with this s—t since literally last year.”

In a statement released in late March, the Neighborhood Collaborative Project outlined the ways organizations have had to adapt due to the county’s funding freeze. Some of those organizations took immediate steps to address the situation, including furloughing workers and suspending programs. The Beyond the Sanctuary food pantry suspended its operations completely.

“To date, NCP partners have over four months of unpaid invoices,” the statement reads. “The direct effect this situation has on NCP agencies created a ripple effect that spans across the wider community. This situation has a dire impact on our clients, staff, and programs.”

None of the organizations within NCP have received any of their lost funds yet. Starbridge declined to comment for this story, deferring to the county. Meanwhile, Cameron Community Ministries has been kept afloat with donations from the community, albeit with less services.

The story of how CRC collapsed and how county staff did not catch the red flags is complicated. The rumor mill spins tirelessly. The convoluted nature of relationships among county government and nonprofit partners remains under scrutiny. Shoestring organizations become more frayed.

For Kassoum-Amadou, she just wants to continue doing the work at Cameron.

“NCP has not worn me down, but it has worn me out,” she said. “I guess more so now that all of this is happening, we’ve been minimized with the work that we’re doing and the impact it is having.”

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.