Poor Relations

Guess what happened when Cleo Sims and her felonious offspring took over a Dallas anti-poverty agency

"We're looking for Antonio Griffin," says Sims, who reported to the city that the agency was having problems with the contractor. "We're gonna have to go out and get donations to get that done."

Griffin says a trailer full of iron vanished from the job site, and he wasn't getting paid, so he walked away in April.

Wherever the truth lies in the debate about why the fence work stopped, failure was not the message DCCAC staff had for the board at the time the job should have been done. According to the minutes of the agency's March 25 directors' meeting, DCCAC's finance director informed the group, "An iron fence has been placed around the Meadows Apartment complex."

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He didn't say it was a "jive fence."

Seated in her office--a smallish room filled with a big fig tree and other large plants in a renovated building at the east end of downtown--Cleo Sims talks in dismissive tones about all the questions the state has been asking about her agency.

Indignantly, almost haughtily, she refers to one critic as "disrespectful." Later, she complains in a grittier tone, "I've got to deal with this crap."

The state regulators "don't have a clue about what it takes to run a program for low-income folk," she complains. "They don't have a clue...I've gone into my purse to assist folk who need help. There is no misappropriation of funds going on here; there just is not."

Around the organization, people paint different pictures of Sims. Says one former high-ranking employee, "She's a visionary, but maybe not the best manager." Says a woman still on the payroll, "This lady don't care nothing about the poor. She smiles in your face and stabs you in the back."

Several employees say the nepotism has hurt morale, and Sims has told staff members that the turmoil surrounding the agency is a "no-win" situation for them.

Sims and the agency's former board president--Charles Hunter, a retired psychology professor who held that post from 1990 until last February--are credited with rebuilding DCCAC after it nearly closed seven years ago. The Dallas Morning News wrote the agency's obituary on January 4, 1990, under the headline "DCCAC to lose last program."

After two trips into receivership and years of government investigations, State District Judge Michael O'Neil ordered the agency's last trickle of public money, a $1 million-a-year Community Services Block Grant, transferred to the county. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said at the time he thought the county could best handle the program without creating a new bureaucracy.

But Hunter opposed the move, and a Washington lawyer hired by the nonprofit blocked the transfer, invoking federal rules that allow only a "community action program" with a 21-member board to receive the block grant.

The feds were owed an outstanding debt of $1.2 million for disallowed costs from the 1980s, but they declined to collect it or shut the agency down.

DCCAC refused to die.
There were "faults, and lots of folks decided not to take any responsibility for it," says Sims. But, she adds, "We were given the opportunity to restructure and bring the organization back."

Sims, a former retail manager, arrived at DCCAC in the mid-1980s, where old agency forms list her as a recruiter in a program to train older workers. "When I came, I knew nothing about social services," she says. She was one of a handful of employees left in 1990, when a Hunter-led board gave her the top job.

"When I took over, we had one community center--one," she says, referring to the offices where the poor go for help. "Now we have eight. We have two thrift stores. We have a restaurant. We have a commercial strip center. We have three apartment complexes and more on the drawing board."

Says Hunter, who remains closely involved with the agency, "We've been used as a model throughout the state; we've gotten very good reviews."

The agency's most expensive thrust over the past several years has been a move into low-income housing.

As of December 1995, according to the most recent financial audit report available, DCCAC had outstanding loans of nearly $728,608 on its properties, which include the three apartment houses and the strip center. Its assets in land, buildings, and equipment totaled $1.4 million.

But the agency has bigger plans.
In November, HUD awarded DCCAC $2.1 million to construct 40 apartments for the elderly in Garland. The Garland City Council voted in June to spend $174,335 on the project. Several council members voted against it, saying the costs were well above the average cost per unit in this market.

Sims says the deal is scheduled to close early next month. "All the funding's in place," she says.

"Uh oh," says Jose Alvarado, Garland's director of neighborhood development, when asked about the state's review of DCCAC. He said he had not heard of any problem with the agency, and referred other questions to his boss, who was out of town.

Montgomery, the state housing department spokesman, declined to say how the audit might affect a South Dallas townhouse venture also on DCCAC's drawing board, called Southern Acres. Sims says the state's part of that funding is expected to be about $250,000. "If there was going to be a holdup, that would be a crime," insists Sims. "I think that's needed housing."

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