The challenge for the Urban League

Crisis: An important city institution moves to clear hurdles of its own making.

May 27, 2000

BOTH THE Baltimore Urban League's board of directors and its ousted president, Roger I. Lyons, bear responsibility for the organization's sad current shape.

But the issue now is not so much assigning blame as it is procuring a workable future for this vital organization.

Without Mr. Lyons' departure, it's hard to see how the Urban League could expect to attract the support it will need to survive.

Mr. Lyons was in charge when the league and former state Sen. Larry Young were charged with "knowingly" submitting false program reports to the federal government. His removal reflects a necessary first step.

But the league must go fur-ther. To restore the community'strust, it must produce auditsthat show proper operation ofits programs. To do this, the organ-ization needs $47,000 to pay theauditors -- money it does nothave.

Mortgage payments, payroll taxes and rent are in arrears. The organization says it needs asmuch as $700,000 to get out of difficulty.

Board members trace the problem to two sources. First came the purchase and renovation of the historic Orchard Street Church, once a stop on the Underground Railroad used by escaping slaves. That project, brought to fruition by Mr. Lyons, has been a drain of $200,000 a year.

Though the league may not have been capable of bearing the expense, the reason for trying is understandable -- though possibly a bit afield from its social service mission.

The same cannot be said ofits relationship with former Sena-tor Young. Federal auditors foundhe was billing the League at a rateof $300 an hour for consulting work.

At the conclusion of the federal government civil suit, the league was ordered to pay a $40,000penalty -- and to make programadjustments costing $157,000.

As lamentable as these lapses and misjudgments may be, the League's work might continue -- if it can show it is well-managed and productive.

The league has been an important symbol of interracial striving for a just society -- and an institution that attempts to do important work for Baltimore.

With contracts from an array of foundations and government agencies, it offers job placement services, literacy and parental responsibility programs and efforts to curtail sexually transmitted diseases, among others.

In recent years, the league's budget has declined sharply. To halt the slide and to win new contracts, it must find a way to pay for and then release the audits.

Money for social causes is hard enough to find when the program operators do good work that is above reproach.

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