The East Akron Community House — once a powerful and proud advocate for its neighborhood — is falling apart.
Nearly ten months after unhappy workers staged a walkout, a Beacon Journal investigation has found the agency in disarray and no longer offering services.
The list of problems is lengthy and troubling:
• The board president confirmed that the agency is under investigation by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
• Embattled Executive Director Tiffany Edwards — criticized by employees and vendors for her leadership style — no longer is working there.
• Businesses are coming forward saying they haven’t been paid, and the agency is facing lawsuits.
• What once was a building filled with people at 550 S. Arlington St. is quiet and empty. On most days, there is only a receptionist and occasional representative of the Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop from the Arlington Church of God, which has had a lease with EACH for more than a year. EACH has become a landlord, only leasing out space in the building.
• And the Ohio attorney general says EACH is no longer a recognized nonprofit organization because it failed to renew its charitable registration with the state and pay the $200 filing fee.
The abiding fear is that the 103-year-old organization is doomed.
“It brings tears to my eyes to see an agency fall apart that for so many years helped so many people,” said retired Akron educator Ann Lane Gates, the first black hired at EACH in 1955.
The East Akron Community House was founded as Akron’s only settlement house and was a vocal advocate for residents in East Akron, an area that struggles today with high poverty and abandoned properties.
In its heyday, the group led fights against prostitution and other crimes in the neighborhood. It also championed the construction of the Middlebury shopping plaza, helping bring a much-needed grocery store into the area.
In recent years, the agency had provided counseling, drug and alcohol prevention services, health clinics, adult day care and vocational services.
But EACH has been in a downward spiral for several years.
Last June, Akron City Councilwoman Margo Sommerville, former Councilman Ken Jones and Summit County Councilwoman Tamela Lee filed a complaint with the attorney general and called for a state investigation after the Beacon Journal reported that many organizations had pulled their funding from the agency.
Many of the concerns centered on the former executive director. There also were complaints about unfair firings, and workers and contracts not being paid.
Board President George Baker said this week that EACH is in a period of transition and confirmed that Edwards is no longer leading the agency.
“The board looked at its position over the last year and a half and there was a decision that we probably needed to go in a different direction,” Baker said. “That issue was founded by a number of elements and when we looked at that, our first concern was what is going to be best for East Akron Community House.”
He cited issues with the agency’s records, but declined to discuss specific problems.
“We are in the midst of an investigation with the state attorney general and for me to talk about items involved in that investigation would not really be appropriate,” Baker said.
He added that state investigators have asked for more than just financial records, but mounds of information including the names of past employees and former board members.
Edwards could not be reached despite numerous attempts.
Bad publicity, debt
Gates, the former employee who worked there from 1955 to 1961, said her most recent encounter with the agency was last year when she approached Edwards about releasing the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Fund that is under the EACH umbrella. Gates is on the committee that helps distribute the scholarships.
“It’s a $25,000 scholarship that Cazzell Smith started when he ran the agency,” she said. “When I asked her if we needed to take the matter to court she asked us not to, because she said she didn’t need any more publicity. That’s when I learned about all the funding problems there. I just hope EACH is not completely dead.”
The Beacon Journal also has received numerous phone calls from debt collectors.
Maxim Healthcare Services filed a breach of contract with the agency in Summit County Common Pleas Court for services in August 2013. The suit claims EACH owes the company $18,205.
Emidio & Sons Pizza filed suit in small claims court trying to recover $1,600 from a debt owed from 2012 and won the judgment in October 2013, but has yet to be paid.
“I don’t understand how they’re staying open if they still owe money to me,” said the owner, Emidio Piermarini. “I’d love to be paid, but I doubt if that’s going to happen.”
Issues with board
Besides Baker, the other board members are: Bradley Reeves; John Nelson, who is president of the Barberton NAACP; the Rev. Lorenzo Glenn, who is pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church; and Kirk Shelton.
At one point, the board had has many as 18 members.
Community leaders say some of the recent problems stem from the board itself.
Sommerville, Jones and Lee complained that the board wouldn’t meet with them or disclose financial records.
And state Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, who attended a meeting last year with the former executive director, board, attorney general and community leaders, expressed similar frustration at the board’s resistance.
“We wanted to help the agency and not to come in as a police officer,” Sykes said. “We wanted to be a social advocate to maintain some of the agency’s services to its constituents. We suggested having an umbrella organization come in and work with them. One that had credibility in the community, but they were reluctant to embrace that concept and felt that they could still persevere.”
Baker, who once headed the Summit County Veterans Service Commission, joined the board in October 2010. He said the board’s role is “to assist and try to raise money for the agency and if you’re not doing that, something is wrong.”
The agency has had significant financial setbacks in recent years.
According to the organization’s 990 nonprofit reports filed with the IRS, EACH has been losing money — along with revenue. The agency lost $17,745 in 2012, the latest year available.
EACH also lost $172,770 in 2011, $89,194 in 2010 and $61,888 in 2009.
Its revenue also has fallen from $1.47 million in 2009 to $979,082 in 2012.
“I would say we are probably in desperate straits in that area [funding],” Baker said. “A number of very influential people on the board, especially in the financial end, moved on.”
He would not go into detail.
He said as part of the transition, the board is actively recruiting new board members, has set up meetings for potential funding and has appointed board member, John Nelson, as a temporary interim director.
In late 2010, the agency cut ties with former Executive Director Cazzell Smith, who now works for the county. Both sides, though, never fully explained the parting of ways — other than Smith calling it “just a mutual situation.”
Baker, on the board then, too, said they wanted to go in a different direction with the agency.
Smith said EACH has always been an agency that provided services for the minority — whatever the minority, whether it was European immigrants, Appalachian or black families. He said the last generation of minorities has been the female heads of household, and many of the program services were specifically designed to help those families.
“It used to be a thriving agency and we did go through some hard times, but we always had some reserve funding to fall back on,” Smith insisted.
United Way President Bob Kulinski said his group, which pulled its funding because of concerns, had been trying to connect with someone at EACH for two months but has been unsuccessful.
He was not aware that Edwards is no longer with the agency.
If EACH needs help, Kulinski said, the United Way is willing to step in.
“We’re concerned about services to people in East Akron and we’re going to make sure no matter what happens to a brand or organization, we’re going to do what we can to maintain the important services,” he said.
Dan Tierney, the Ohio attorney general’s spokesman, declined to say whether there is an active investigation into the agency or not.
He said there have been no new complaints filed since the initial one made by Sommerville, Jones and Lee last year.
Tierney also said EACH faces problems if it operates without renewing its charitable license with the state.
“Continued delinquency could trigger a charitable investigation or legal action against the organization,” he said. “We generally try to work with an organization prior to taking steps down the line. It’s early in this particular process.”