Parish on the hook for debt, interest, penalties
The Webster Parish Police Jury approved the spending of nearly $100,000 of the police jury’s Office of Community Services funds to save many of their programs, at least for now.
The police jurors called a special meeting Thursday to discuss the problem. Office of Community Services Director Melinda Davidson outlined the issue and asked for approval to spend the money.
“All of this actually began back in 2012, during a tri-annual review [of the Head Start program], where some non-federal shares, some match money was disallowed,” Davidson said. “Actually it was close to $500,000.”
Davidson said the Office of Community Services was notified of the problem, but never informed the police jury.
“A letter did come in. It was addressed to the police jury, but it was never turned over to the police jury,” Davidson said.
Webster Parish was allowed one appeal to the findings, which the previous director of the office, Mary Whitaker, initiated.
“The previous executive director did apply for that, and they replied to the appeal. So the amount was dropped from almost $480,000 down to about $273,000,” Davidson said. “The interest, at the time, was over nine percent and was dropped to three percent.”
Davidson said Whitaker then received a letter asking that either the entire debt be paid, or a payment agreement established.
“Again, that was addressed to the police jury and you guys were never notified,” Davidson said. “She did sign a repayment agreement, which she did not have the legal authority to do.”
Davidson said it was after that when the police jury became informed of the situation, explaining, “The day she sent that letter, where she entered into repayment agreement, which is $33,000 a year, was the day she wrote a letter to [Police Jury President] Jim Bonsall]. Three weeks later, [Parish Attorney] Patrick Jackson, that was the first chance he had, to write a letter. It was never responded to.”
Davidson said as far as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was concerned, the appeals process was concluded and the parish is now on the hook for the money.
“That one and only chance to appeal had been taken,” she said. “So now our fight is with the [United States] Department of Justice. This is no longer with Head Start.”
According to Davidson, no payment had been made since the agreement was sent, setting up the issue on the table.
“They are asking, at the very least, the $99,000 be paid,” Davidson said. “If there is any interest that is owed at this time, I do not know that amount.”
The lack of payment to the federal government has resulted in the suspension of the program’s supplemental grant, among others. Paying the $99,000 will lift the suspension with Head Start.
“What this has done is placed this agency, as a whole, in a situation where it is considered to have been suspended of federal funds,” Davidson said. “So all of our other federal funding is now at risk.”
Davidson said the Office of Community Services does have funds to pay the back debt, but the expenditure must be approved by the police jury.
“I am asking to be allowed to pay the $99,000,” she said. “That would at least raise [the suspension] for now. If nothing is done at all, and all of our services go away, that does not erase the debt.”
The parish would also incur other monetary obligations due to grant requirements if the Office of Community Services were to no longer exist.
Jurors asked about the remaining years on the payment plan. Davidson said that obligation would be met without any other police jury involvement.
“The police jury pays our agency $33,000 a year,” Davidson said. “That was the money she had committed to be paid — and I will pay it. I will make sure that is paid.”
Bonsall said the jury will more than likely be responsible for more than just the $99,000 and subsequent $33,000 payments, due to penalties and interest.
“We can clarify the motion,” Bonsall said. “But the motion is going to be to pay the debt off.”
“Over time,” Davidson added.
Jurors unanimously approved a motion to grant the Office of Community Services authority to pay the $99,000 owed, and subsequently pay $33,000 per year until the debt obligation was fulfilled.
“Maybe we can get some help,” Bonsall said. “I’m hoping we can get some help. But, I’m not counting on it.”