Learning center's funding probed

Turners Station facility closed amid question of money

$60,000 unaccounted for

March 03, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County officials are trying to account for nearly $60,000 earmarked for youth activities and learning programs at the Fleming Community Center in Turners Station, one of the region's most historic black enclaves.

The funds in question include $50,000 in grants for the facility's resource center -- which contained 17 new computers, printers, a fax machine and books when it was dedicated in July 2000 -- and at least $7,000 in sports activity funds.

Today, the Kay Ruppersberger Learning Resource Center sits dark, closed for all but one night since July. Some books donated to Turners Station remain in boxes.

While other programs for senior citizens, children and teen-agers have continued at the $3 million Fleming Center, county Library Director James H. Fish said that he canceled the county's contract with the resource center's volunteer director last summer, closed the resource center and changed the locks.

On Monday, the resource center opened for one night, but only after inquiries by The Sun about it not being open for seven months. Most of the community was not aware that it was open that night, residents said.

Since troubles began at the Fleming Center, community critics have complained that county officials made, and continue to make, decisions without their input. They have also complained about fiscal accountability.

"There apparently was not a great deal of financial oversight there," Fish said. Control of all county activities at the Fleming Center was recently turned over to John F. Weber III, the director of recreation and parks.

In addition, the county spent $100,000 in public funds on a small library in Turners Station beginning in 1996 and officials are hard-pressed to document how that money was spent.

"We really can't tell, although there had to be purchases of some tangibles -- furniture, bus trips or things like that," said Fish.

`We'd do it differently'

In 1999, with the library on its way to becoming part of the resource center at the Fleming Center, Fish instituted an annual contract for its operation.

"The contract is something we should have done years ago," he said in an interview.

"Clearly, if we had it to do over again, we'd do it differently," Fish said.

But the contract failed to bring the hoped-for financial accountability. Officials said that the volunteer director of the resource center, longtime local activist Peggy Patterson, twice failed to file the required annual financial reports to detail how she spent two county grants totaling $50,000.

Patterson, as head of Turners Station Concerned Citizens, led the effort to start a mini-library, which replaced one closed by the county in 1992 for budgetary reasons. The county awarded her a start-up grant of $50,000 in 1996, with two additional annual grants of $25,000 until Fish required her to sign the contract in 1999.

Attempts to obtain comment from Patterson were not successful. She refused one interview at her home and did not respond to several telephone messages.

Now, as the county tries to figure out what became of the money, officials and volunteers are scrambling to reopen the resource center this month.

Outdated or broken computers will be removed and replaced with eight new ones. But as before, none will have Internet access, said a spokeswoman for County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

`Unacceptable situation'

Ruppersberger bristled recently when informed that the Fleming resource center had been closed for seven months, used only for a small group of seniors but no children or teen-agers. "This is an unacceptable situation for a strong community that works hard," he said. "We will look into all of this, including where the funds went."

Patterson also headed the Turners Station Recreation Council for about four years, until she was asked to step down by other community members in July. The current council president, Gloria Nelson, has been working with the county and volunteers to balance the council's books and restore order to the Fleming Center.

"We no longer work in a vacuum in the rec council," Nelson said Friday. She confirmed other reports that at least $7,000 in funds targeted for youth sports activities were unaccounted for by the time she became president.

"When I took over," she said, "the rec council's balance was zero." An internal audit was deemed too expensive. Many documents are missing, and the new leadership decided not to conduct an in-house investigation.

County police have been informed of the missing funds but have not started an investigation, Nelson said. She and others are attempting to locate bank drafts, canceled checks and other records of financial dealings before authorities would begin to investigate.

Patterson was chosen to run the new resource center and dedicated the computer room and mini-library to Ruppersberger's wife, Kay, in 2000.

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