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WFCM in Showdown with County

Money needed to stay afloat; both sides make accusations.

For the past two decades, families in crisis situations in Centreville, Chantilly, Clifton, Fair Oaks and Fairfax Station have turned to Western Fairfax Christian Ministries (WFCM) for help. In return, they've received food, clothing and financial assistance.

But now, the organization that's saved so many others from becoming homeless needs help itself to keep a roof over its head. And when it asked Fairfax County for help, says WFCM Executive Director Dorothy Fonow, the door was slammed in its face.

"We had been asking for assistance with our rent — and it's the first time in 20 years we've asked for help with our operating expenses," she said. "But the supervisors last Tuesday [April 24] didn't give money [above last year's budget expenditures] to anybody but child-care subsidy. And the people getting it come to us for food and financial aid."

The county Board of Supervisors, however, says it didn't know WFCM was in such grave financial straits that — without help paying its overdue rent — it would have to cease operating as of this Saturday, May 5. And it looks as if that may not be the case now, since Fannie Mae may have come to WFCM's rescue.

But upon further investigation, said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), WFCM's money problems go way beyond the rent payments and indicate more serious troubles.

"Their problem is that they have a huge, structural deficit," he explained. "Their budget this year is $750,000 and they hope to raise $400,000. I know they do some wonderful things, but they're in a huge hole."

But Fonow takes umbrage at that remark, stressing that "it's a very expensive county and it's very difficult for little nonprofits to make ends meet. Basically, we're like our clients — we can't afford to live in western Fairfax."

As it is, WFCM and 2,000 volunteers from its 36 member churches help some 1,200 people a month with food, clothing, rent, utility and medical bills, prescriptions, dental care, transportation, special-education needs and school supplies. The county gives WFCM money annually toward direct, client assistance, but that's all.

Rent for its space in Chantilly has risen from just less than $8,000/month to $10,000/month, and WFCM is now $30,000 in arrears for its March, April and May rent. Said Fonow: "We've still provided services, but we've eaten into our [cash] reserves."

She said it costs $60,000/month for rent, financial assistance to clients, salaries, utilities, phone and insurance — which went from $5,000/year to $10,000/year. And help goes to people of all faiths and situations.

"People think it's 'just those poor people' that need help, but it could happen to any one of us at any time," said Fonow. "We also help mainstream people who get into trouble — people who get sick, lose jobs or have accidents. Five percent of the financial assistance we give is for mortgages. Things can unravel very quickly and, last week, I felt like someone who was becoming homeless."

Currently, she said, WFCM can't afford to pay its staff — not that it has an abundance of paid help. "We live on donations, too," said Fonow. "We do this on a bare-bones staff; we have departments of one [person]. Many of our employees are single women who don't have the luxury of working for free."

So WFCM is appealing to the community — both individuals and corporations — to send donations to: WFCM, 13981 Metrotech Drive, Chantilly, VA 20151. More volunteers are also needed; call 703-988-9656 and press 105.

"We tried, through fund-raising and increased development, to stem the tide," said Fonow. "And money we invested into a development director didn't give us a rate of return [to make it worthwhile]. Right now, we're teetering on the brink and hope we can survive."

On March 22, she and WFCM board member Karen Dolan met with Frey and Deputy County Executive Verdia Haywood. Said Fonow: "We told them we needed help — we're broke." But when the matter came before the Supervisors last week, they expressed surprise and said they hadn't known about WFCM's financial woes.

"Dorothy did not indicate to us on March 22 how serious this was," said Frey on May 1. "Budget money isn't even available until July 1. Haywood said he'd work on a proposal to see if something could be done with fiscal-year carryover [money] in September. I was completely shocked when I got the e-mail, Thursday afternoon [April 26], that WFCM was closing their doors May 5."

Frey said Fonow "never said they weren't paying their rent and were going to have to close soon." Nor, he said, did Fonow disclose to them that, for the past several years, WFCM hadn't been raising the funds it needed to operate.

"I had no idea the situation was as dire as it is," said Frey. "We've been scrambling ever since." He said March 22 was too late to ask for help by May 5. "And if we gave them $20,000 [for March and April rent], they'd still need rent money for [May]."

First and foremost, he said, is to not let WFCM's clients fall though the cracks and make sure they continue receiving help. As for the rent, he said, "I've talked with the landlord and he's agreed to give them as much time as they need to work with the county," rather than beginning legal proceedings against WFCM for nonpayment.

Possible solutions, said Frey, are to "try to bail [WFCM] out, let them close and have their clients be absorbed into other organizations or maybe have them partner with [a similar group like] Reston Interfaith."

He attributed many of WFCM's woes to the area's growing population and declining contributions. "They don't have a corporate base and their fund-raising has just about dried up," said Frey. "They get $80,000/year from churches and $30,000/year from private contributions. And the churches haven't been increasing their contributions in proportion to the increased need."

He said WFCM and the county needed to have the March 22 conversation a year or two ago. Said Frey: "WFCM masked over their financial problems by using their reserves and, now, they're in crisis."

He said it takes years for a group to acquire corporate support, but that would have helped WFCM monetarily. Instead, he said, "As the demand [for WFCM' services] exploded, they didn't turn anybody away. God love 'em for it, but nobody knew the magnitude of their problems."

Frey said WFCM and its auditors, Family Services representatives and county auditors are meeting this week to go over WFCM's books. "The clients will be served in the short term," he said. But how their needs will be met in the long run must still be determined.

Fonow, however, paints a different picture and is furious with the Board of Supervisors, Frey, Board Chairman Gerry Connolly and Haywood. And she says Frey and Haywood didn't present WFCM's information from the March 22 meeting to the Board prior to its budget vote regarding extra funding.

"We didn't say specifically how much we needed, but that our rent was $10,000/month," said Fonow. "Michael and Verdia led me to believe we'd get [help with the overdue rent]." On Feb. 12, she said, WFCM told the Community Services Board — which oversees the county grant WFCM uses to help local families — it needed the county's help to pay its rent.

Fonow was referred to Haywood, but couldn't get an appointment with him until March 7. She said she told Haywood that, starting July 1, WFCM needed $10,000/month for a year — $120,000 total — to pay the upcoming fiscal year's rent.

"Many nonprofits in the county get rental assistance from the county," said Fonow. "And both Verdia and Michael said it's a strong likelihood that we could get it — either immediately or on July 1 from the county budget."

"If we'd had a letter of intent from the county saying this, we could have presented it to the bank to get an advance to help pay the back rent," she continued. "But we never got the letter because the Board had to agree to it. On March 22, I asked if they needed any more information or if they needed us to do anything further, and they said no."

So no one from WFCM spoke at the Board's budget public hearings in April, said Fonow, because they thought the organization's needs were already being taken care of. "We've only ever applied for grants, not gone before the Board for help for ourselves," she explained. "But Monday [at the Board's April 30 meeting], it was evident the Board hadn't seen anything at all about our situation or the need."

"[Yet] how could they not have known what we needed?" asked Fonow. "In February, I said, if we don't get some assistance, we'd have to close our doors — and Verdia was apprised of that. Where did the miscommunication occur between February and [Monday]? All of a sudden, we're being painted as the bad guys, and I'm not happy about that, at all."

She said she hadn't mentioned the May 5 closing possibility at the March 22 meeting because, at that point, WFCM was only one month in arrears. "I don't think Gerry Connolly has a full understanding of the lack of trust we now have for the Board of Supervisors," said Fonow. "He thinks we've been irresponsible, and I'm feeling very disappointed. I think we did a good thing by always being independent, screening our client base and taking care of their needs."

However, things brightened for WFCM Monday afternoon. Fannie Mae offered to give WFCM the $60,000 it needs for rent and salaries until June 30, and Fonow said she's "taken them up on the offer. It'll be a grant we won't have to pay back." Ironically, in the past, WFCM has raised money for Fannie Mae.

Fonow said the county doesn't have all the facts about WFCM's finances, but will receive auditors' information on Monday, May 7. Meanwhile, WFCM's seeking a cheaper place to rent and plans more fund-raisers. "We've spent our reserves over the past four years," said Fonow. "We hope that, somewhere in the budget, the county will find a way to help us with our rent. If they say no, I don't know what we'll do."