Feud puts fuel fund founder's goal at risk

January 10, 2009|By JAY HANCOCK

The late Victorine Q. Adams helped black politicians challenge Baltimore's white establishment in the 1950s, became the first black woman on the City Council in the 1960s and founded one of the nation's first nonprofits to help people pay energy bills in the 1970s.

But the Baltimore organization that represents her legacy isn't assisting anybody this winter. The Victorine Q. Adams Fuel Fund has suspended business, the result of a bitter disagreement with its main financing source, the Fuel Fund of Maryland.

Baltimore residents are getting energy assistance through other organizations. But the marquee agency that started it all has stopped paying its small staff amid a dispute that includes allegations of racial insensitivity by one side and poor management by both.

Says Charles W. Griffin, president of the Victorine Q. Adams fund: "We felt that this is a matter of divide and conquer, an opportunity to dismantle the memory of what Victorine Q. Adams stands for."

Says Fuel Fund of Maryland Director Marnell Cooper, whose group cut off Griffin's organization in late 2007: "Because of the fiscal irresponsibility of the current structure of the VQA, Mrs. Adams' name is in danger of dying unless something is done."

Disagreements began soon after the petite Adams died in 2006 at the age of 93.

The woman described paradoxically as a "soft-spoken firebrand" left a double legacy: political progress for African-Americans and the inspiration for a network of private nonprofits helping the neediest families pay electricity, natural gas and oil bills.

She founded the Baltimore Fuel Fund in 1979, got Baltimore Gas and Electric to help finance it and created a model that has spread nationwide.

"She is one of the elders in the fuel fund movement - a voice and an advocate for this particular kind of institution at the earliest that people thought of it," said George Coling, executive director of the National Fuel Funds Network, a neutral trade group with hundreds of members. "We really revere her."

The Fuel Fund of Maryland distributes donated resources to low-income families through numerous agencies across the Baltimore area. It wanted the Baltimore City fund, renamed for Adams, to increase the number of people it was helping. Both sides agree on that.

The Adams' fund's Griffin, who is on the Board of Regents at Morgan State University, says that "there was never any talk about limitations on spending" in discussions about expanding assistance.

Fuel Fund of Maryland President Richard B. Phelps III denies giving carte blanche, saying Griffin's group was required to operate like other agencies, keeping overhead low and distributing as many dollars as possible to needy households.

In any event, the Adams fund spent far more than what the larger organization was prepared to reimburse. It opened satellite offices, increased its staff and committed to hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy rebates beyond what the Fuel Fund of Maryland says was in its budget.

"We can only fund as much as we raise," Phelps said. "All that's nice," he said of the expanded staff and offices, "but there's no money for it."

"The mandate was to increase funding to my constituents," said the Adams fund's Griffin. "There is no way we ever could have opened them [the offices] without their approval."

BGE ended up paying $248,395 in extra energy assistance for those in need in late 2007 to compensate for the Adams fund's overspending, according to BGE and the Fuel Fund of Maryland.

Three Fuel Fund of Maryland checks written in 2007 to the Adams fund bounced, Griffin said.

"We, the Fuel Fund of Maryland Inc., have never had a check bounce," says Mary Ellen Vanni, the group's executive director. One check sent to the Adams fund, she said, was incorrectly filled out but was fixed the next day.

In late 2007, the Fuel Fund of Maryland cut off the Adams fund altogether, routing assistance to city residents instead through the Salvation Army and others. But representatives continued to talk until a few months ago. Recently, the larger organization offered to take over the Victorine Q. Adams name and appoint Griffin and colleagues to an advisory board.

"We said 'No way,' " said Griffin, who attributes the friction to "racial insensitivity" by the white-dominated Fuel Fund of Maryland. His group is attempting independent fundraising and examining legal options for redress against the other organization, he said.

"This is not an issue of race," said Cooper, who is African-American and succeeds to the Fuel Fund of Maryland presidency this year. "We have limited dollars. You reject our assistance. And then you claim that we have some kind of racial bias against you when what you're proposing cannot happen from a fiscal standpoint."

What a shame. I don't know whether the board of the Adams fund got mixed signals or not. But at this point the Fuel Fund of Maryland's intentions seem clear: Make donor dollars go as far as possible by keeping administrative costs low.

That's a goal Victorine Adams, who strived to raise ever more heating aid through what she called "begging letters" to potential donors, might have supported.

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