The Norman Transcript

May 14, 2013

County battle continues over youth shelter funding

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Supporters of Crossroads Youth and Family Services and supporters of a tighter county budget battled Monday in a public hearing before the Cleveland County Budget Board.

Tempers flared between Norman City Council member Dave Spaulding and a member of the audience after a negative comment was made about Spaulding. Budget Board Chair Rod Cleveland quickly got the meeting under control and a Cleveland County deputy on security duty appeared quietly in the back of the room.

Emotions were high as some Crossroads supporters accused elected county officers serving on the budget board as being poor examples of Christianity and recited or read verses from scripture.

For newly elected County Commissioner Darry Stacy, those personal attacks went too far. A retired police officer with a long career in law enforcement, Stacy told the Transcript in a private interview that he knows the importance of the youth shelter, but he believes it receives enough state funding from the Office of Juvenile Affairs to continue operating without the $225,000 in funding the county stripped from its proposed FY 2014 budget.

Crossroads Finance Director Patricia Wiggs said the shelter has been impacted by the same budget cuts that have trickled down to every other state agency and the organization will have some tough decisions ahead as the agency is forced to make $200,000 worth of cuts.

Former Cleveland County Judge J. David Rambo spoke on behalf of the youth shelter. Rambo is credited with founding the shelter. As the juvenile judge at that time, Rambo knew the need.

“We opened a juvenile shelter on Feb. 1, 1969, with the collaborative efforts of civic groups, Cleveland County officials, state government and the Department of Human Services,” Rambo said. “The support of our county commissioners was critical to the success of the shelter.

“As time passed, our board, volunteers, all of our employees and the staff that was loaned to us from DHS repeated these efforts statewide and created a similar service of care and protection for youth across Oklahoma.”

The Cleveland County Juvenile Shelter was the first emergency youth shelter in the state. Out of his own pocket, Rambo purchased the first shelter facility at 110 E. Eufaula St.

The shelter evolved over time and, in 2002, the Cleveland County Youth & Family Center ceased to operate as a branch of county government when its advisory board transformed the agency into a nonprofit agency named Crossroads Youth and Family Services Inc.

Currently, Crossroads sponsors 27 locations of Head Start and Early Head Start in Cleveland, Comanche, Pottawatomie and Seminole counties.

As the organization served more areas, the overall budget increased, but state and federal money is strictly designated. Head Start money cannot be used to operate the shelter, Wiggs said.

Also at dispute has been Executive Director Lisa Winters’ salary. Winters’ full compensation package includes a salary of $104,852, health insurance benefits of $5,405 and a 4 percent 401k match of $4,194, according to information provided by Crossroads.

Winters does not have an expense account or a company vehicle, but she can seek mileage reimbursement when appropriate.

Supporters say the need for the shelter is even greater today than it was in 1969.

“The need for services was great back then and greater now with thousands more people living in Cleveland County,” Rambo said. “To damage such a system, whether intended or not, is not morally defensible or fiscally responsible. The development of the shelter program and related agencies has brought tens of millions of dollars to residents in salaries and services.”

Spaulding spoke in favor of Crossroads as an agency, but said the county budget board is doing the right thing by striking the item from its budget. He said people should support the nonprofit through donations.

Bruce Parker said the county should not pick charities, and if it is going to give to charity, it should have a charity review board.

“I can appreciate the challenge of forming a budget that meets the needs of a dynamic and growing county such as ours,” Lyntha Wesner said. “I ask that we focus on the need of support for the emergency youth shelter. Addressing this need is exactly what government — our tax dollars — is for. To protect the vulnerable, especially our children. This is a public safety issue.”

Melissa May works nights at the shelter, but she also knows the importance of a safe haven firsthand.

“When I was 16 years old, I was removed from the custody of my mother and placed in a youth shelter,” she said. “At 16, I had been living with a parent that was heavily addicted to narcotics. At her hands and due to her neglect, I had suffered all manner of abuse.

“I was a shell, despondent and without hope in every aspect of my life. When I was placed in the shelter I had nothing, I had no one. I felt completely and totally alone and worthless. That shelter and the people who worked there were the only things that kept me on this side of the dirt. Cutting the funding to this shelter would be a huge detriment and terrible mistake for Cleveland County.”

Despite the emotional tenure of the meeting, the Cleveland County Budget Board stuck to their guns. There was no discussion of change to the budget or of designating money for Crossroads Family and Youth Shelter.

Joy Hampton