Lafourche anti-poverty group spending $20K on San Francisco trip
A quasi-governmental Lafourche Parish anti-poverty group is spending $20,400 to send 10 people to San Francisco for a national convention at the end of the month, despite the fact there are other avenues for the group to receive this training that would cost a fraction of that amount.
The Community Action Partnership is a national association of local community action groups whose mission is to combat poverty. The groups apply for and disseminate money from various state and federal grants to help the less fortunate.
Some of the programs offer to help people pay their electric bill, give fans to the elderly and offer vouchers for school uniforms.
Each school uniform voucher is valued at $40. For the cost of the San Francisco trip, Lafourche Community Action could have provided 510 uniform vouchers.
Freddie Ruffin-Roberson, executive director of the Office of Community Action for Lafourche Parish told the advisory board Thursday the group has stopped handing out uniform vouchers because it had exhausted the $18,000 budgeted for school outfits.
It will resume distributing uniform vouchers in the first week of September, according to Ruffin-Roberson.
The cost of the trip could have been less if the airfare, hotel and convention registration were purchased sooner, board members said. Lafourche Parish Office of Community Action Advisory Board President Richmond Boyd said the purchase request was made to the parish administration, but Lafourche Parish Administrator Archie Chaisson waited too long to make the purchases.
The convention registration was $525 per person when the request was submitted two months ago, but Boyd contends by the time Chaisson registered those attending the event, the fee had increased to $725. Airfare also increased as the date of the convention grew nearer. Hotels, too, filled up as convention goers booked their rooms.
The Lafourche Community Action members will be staying at
the Hotel Adagio, a luxury boutique hotel six blocks from the convention at $279 per night.
“I want the board to know, that in two months it cost an extra $4,000 [due to] battles between the council and the administration,” said Jerry Jones, a Lafourche Parish councilman and Community Action Advisory Board member. “So, that’s $4,000 that we could’ve saved if we had registered early.”
Chaisson said the blame is not his. He admits being apprehensive about the trip when Ruffin-Roberson approached him with the purchase.
“When Freddie first approached us with the cost, myself and [Community Services Director] Reggie [Bagala] wanted assurance from the state that this large amount was allowable,” Chaisson said. “We have never spent this much on a single trip ever. After we got over that hurdle, there was some discussion about the board and the council needing to approve the trip since they are the governing board for the [Community Action] Advisory Board. That all took some time. If they would have had all of their ducks in a row when it was presented the first time, it wouldn’t have taken as long to gain approvals.”
The Lafourche Parish Council voted Aug. 11 to approve allowing the Community Action Office to be reimbursed for its travel expenses. Councilman Phillip Gouax amended the rule to allow all Lafourche Parish boards and commissions to be reimbursed for travel expenses.
The Community Action Advisory Board members said they will receive critical training they are required to have in order to do their jobs. Standards are set for national organization’s website, http://www.communityactionpartnership.com
The national conference, held annually, is a weeklong training. It starts Monday, and the 90-plus training workshops begin next Wednesday.
Community Action officials will arrive in San Francisco on Monday evening and leave on Friday after the convention, Boyd said.
Training is important for Community Action officials to do their jobs, according to national and state officials.
“We do have organizational standards that the federal office of community services within the last couple of years have implemented on community action agencies meeting a certain requirement in a total of 58 separate standards subsumed under 13 different categories,” said Avril Weisman, chief administrative officer for the national Community Action Partnership and the conference organizer.
Weisman said the conference offers training on the standards, which include increasing management, governance capacity and on financial governance and best practices in various programs.
“So, most of the training that we provide is designed … so that agencies can understand and work toward reaching these standards,” Weisman said.
New national standards will also be enacted in October that require training of virtually all officials in Community Action Partnership offices across the country, said Denise Harlow, chief executive officer for the National Community Action Partnership.
Any requirements for training, though, would be imposed by the state government that manages the grants for each individual Community Action office. In Louisiana, that is the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
According to Bryan Moore, director of the Office of Workforce Development at the Louisiana Workforce Commission, there are no set training requirements for local Community Action offices. But, he said, training is “strongly encouraged” and necessary for Community Action groups to do their jobs.
“If it’s new board members, they certainly need to understand their role and their jobs,” Moore said.
Five board are new, but not all of them are going because they could not get time off from work.
Improper filing of paperwork has crippled the Lafourche Community Action office for years, according to Boyd. Money awarded through federal grants was then taken away year after year because the group’s paperwork wasn’t in order.
Boyd blames the former board’s lack of “proper training.”
Boyd said grant money will again have to be returned to the Workforce Commission if it is not spent by October.
“Normally, we have two years to spend the money,” Ruffin-Roberson said at Thursday’s Community Action meeting. “This year, we have two months.”
There are other avenues for local Community Action Partnerships to receive the necessary training, however, Weisman said. The national organization also holds a second training conference closer to Lafourche Parish.
The 2016 Management and Leadership Training Conference will be held Jan. 6-8 at the Westin Hotel in New Orleans.
Advisory board president Boyd said he was not aware a training conference was coming to New Orleans in January. When advised, Boyd welcomed the news, saying, “Thanks for telling me. We’ll go to that one too.”
Weisman also said that the national organization also offers various webinars and offers regional training conferences in cities across the United States throughout the year.
Ruffin-Roberson declined to comment on this story.
Richmond Boyd, Lafourche Community Action Advisory Board chairman, said that a trip to San Francisco for five members of the board and three staff members to attend a national Community Action Convention didn’t need to be $20,400.
The Lafourche Parish Community Action Advisory Board discusses their trip to a national convention in San Francisco during their meeting on Aug. 13. Five of them and four staff members are going at a total cost of $20,400.