Tuesday, March 31, 2009

From the New London Day, March 31
My YMCA hometown landmark has fallen on tough times, so sad...

An ad hoc committee of city finance office officials and two local financial professionals will review the YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut's books this week and report back next Monday on the crisis that led the 123-year-old organization to announce plans to close April 30.

YMCA officials said with a debt of about $1 million and an operating deficit of more than $400,000, money to cover payroll and everyday expenses would run out by that date.

About 100 representatives from numerous city agencies, state and federal legislators, public schools and Norwich Free Academy, local business owners and YMCA members crowded into a meeting Monday morning at City Hall, hosted by Mayor Benjamin Lathrop.

The meeting originally was intended for YMCA board members to discuss financial issues with the mayor and city staff. But as word spread, so did interest, and Lathrop said his phone kept ringing with calls from people who planned to attend.

At the start, Lathrop told the audience that he had asked City Manager Alan Bergren to set up a committee to do “an informal audit” of the YMCA's finances to better understand the scope of the problem.

Later Monday, city officials said city Comptroller Joseph Ruffo, Dime Bank Vice President Brian McNamara and Norwich accountant Michael Goldblatt will serve on the committee.

The committee will report its findings at a second public meeting on the issue next Monday at 11 a.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall. An evening public meeting also might be scheduled on another night for those who can't attend during the day, Lathrop said.

Following that announcement, Lathrop disappointed the crowd by saying no public comments would be allowed until next Monday. Instead, he offered a sign-up sheet for those in attendance to be contacted with updates. He invited them to contact either the mayor's office or the city manager with questions or ideas. Nearly 100 people signed the sheet.

”We all have the answers, but they're not all good answers,” Lathrop said.

Downtown business owner Harry Lawson interrupted the mayor, insisting on being allowed to speak and question how the YMCA reached this crisis without bringing the problems to the public. Lawson, owner of a Main Street convenience store and lunch counter, said the YMCA is a crucial piece of downtown.

”We know we must keep it going,” Lathrop said, “but we need to know the sustainability of it.”

Lathrop pronounced his own support for the YMCA, drawing applause from the audience. He acknowledged the emotions attached to the YMCA and said he was overwhelmed by the support expressed during the past several days. Nancy Tepper, director of the YMCA's Small World Child Care Center in Groton, and Small World bookkeeper Jody Williams held up a colorful poster depicting dozens of finger-painted handprints made by children at the center.

”Save our Y, Please,” the poster said.

Bud McAllister of Partners in Healthy Communities of New London pledged his organization's assistance as well, saying the YMCA's closing is a regional issue.

M. Garfield Rucker, a YMCA member, said he wanted an opportunity to express “basic questions,” asking how the YMCA board is appointed and how long members serve. He complained that decisions were made in secret. Lathrop again tried to cut off back-and-forth discussion, saying those answers would come at the next meeting.

P. Michael Lahan, YMCA board spokesman, told the audience that the financial records for the non-profit YMCA are public records and have been published in news stories on the YMCA's pending closure. They also are submitted annually when the YMCA applies for funding from the United Way and other grant foundations.

IRS Form 990 reports for the YMCA, published on the Web site Guidestar.org, show that the YMCA has had operating deficits of $237,268 in 2005; $412,357 in 2006, and $544,296 in 2007 following the $900,000 renovation of the facility.

Lahan said the deficit was more than $400,000 in 2008 and the YMCA is about $1 million in debt. In addition, the aging building on Main Street has an obsolete and failing heating system, no air conditioning and a leaking roof.

”We will do everything we can to cooperate, and we will see you next Monday,” Lahan told the audience.

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