CEA fights battle on two fronts

The Community Empowerment Association, an organization working to strengthen the Homewood Brushton area through housing, education and family support programs, has experienced two serious setbacks in recent months. However, Rashad Byrdsong, the organization’s founder, sees both obstacles as a chance to focus dialogue on issues important to the community CEA serves.

COMMUNITY GATHERING—Rashad Byrdsong welcomes guests to a Brother to Brother Breakfast, one of the many programs run by CEA.

CEA’s trouble began when they learned the building they operate from would be sold to another organization. They received a second blow two weeks ago when County Controller Mike Flaherty released a statement saying CEA would have to pay more than $300,000 back to the county due to the results of an audit.

“There was no misappropriation of funds, there was no misuse, there was no money stolen or taken,” Byrdsong said.

CEA Deputy Director Daytona Gordon said the discrepancies in the audit can be attributed to errors in documentation. She said the staff did not receive adequate training and are working to remedy this.

“We recommend that Community Empowerment Association reimburse Allegheny County for disallowed and unsupported costs and ensure that all future expenditures are properly supported and in compliance with Department of Public Welfare regulations,” said Flaherty. “Additionally, CEA should focus on strengthening their program management, documentation and accountability standards to preclude further disallowances from occurring. The Department of Human Services and Office of Children, Youth and Families should reinforce the terms of its contracts to better define the type of funding, the unit of service and other contract terms to ensure compliance.”

Byrdsong said the situation is an example of the importance of transparency. He also said it is important for other groups to undergo extensive training to ensure they are not hindered by a similar problem.

“What they’re saying is there’s no excuse to be ignorant. We understand that, but things like this hurt the other grass roots organizations,” Byrdsong said. “Just like we’re being looked at, we think our government should be transparent.”

While Byrdsong admits the results of the audit are a problem, he seems more concerned with fighting the sale of the building where his organization has been located for over three years. He said CEA was unaware of any intent to sell the building to an outside organization until Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the group intending to buy the property, informed him.

“We just know that they have put in their intentions to buy the building,” Byrdsong said. “We were never really sure what the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s process was to buy the building and then we got a call from representatives from Alpha Phi Alpha asking if we’d like to stay on board our lease.”

Byrdsong said his organization has maintained the building over the years and put in their interest to buy the building from the very start. He said he spoke with URA members but could never get a straight answer about acquiring the property.

URA spokesperson Megan Stearman said the URA does not have the power to sell the building because they do not own it. She said a decision to sell the building would have to go through the Homewood Brushton Revitalization and Development Corp. who actually owns the building.

“HBRDC owns the building. A few years ago we secured a master lease on the property,” Stearman said. “A year and a half ago both CEA and Alpha Phi Alpha submitted offers to buy the property and the owners and the lender selected Alpha Phi Alpha.”

However, Alpha Phi Alpha was chosen and although Byrdsong said representatives of the organization did a walk through of the building, Stearman said no transaction has actually been made.

In the meantime, CEA is in the midst of a letter writing campaign to gain support from local government officials. Byrdsong also said this incident serves as a learning opportunity for other non-profit groups to become better educated on the process of acquiring buildings in the community.

“There’s a lot of vacant property, not just in Homewood. But a lot of these nonprofit organizations, we’re not able to utilize these properties,” Byrdsong said. “What’s the criteria for (Alpha Phi Alpha’s) application to supercede ours? We don’t know if it’s political but something doesn’t smell right here.”

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