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One Step Further May Not Get One Dollar Further From County
By SCOTT D. YOST
July 10, 2014
One Step Further may have to take a big step back in the future.
Guilford County just funded the nonprofit to the tune of $120,000 in the new county budget, even though the group no longer serves the purpose for which the county has been paying it, and some commissioners say this is likely the last year the organization will get county funding.
In the past, the county has paid for the group to take referrals of juvenile delinquents from Guilford County’s Pretrial Services division – youth who would otherwise be kept in jail if not under the supervision of One Step Further. However, One Step Further no longer gets any referrals from Pretrial Services, but the county gave them the same amount of money it has been giving them for years.
Advocates of funding the group say Guilford County benefits in other ways from One Step Further’s services – though everyone acknowledges that the original reason for the funding is no longer in effect.
In addition to the $100,000 that the group gets to work with troubled youths and keep them out of jail, One Step Further also received $20,000 in county money in the new budget for mediation services to help settle disputes before they go to court. Money for those services was included in the manager’s recommended budget and that funding hasn’t been called into question the way the $100,000 for other court services has been.
One Step Further, which is run by Greensboro City Councilmember and former Mayor Yvonne Johnson, was established in 1982 to help juveniles in trouble with the criminal justice system. Despite the $100,000 from the Guilford County Board of Commissioners in the new 2014-2015 county budget, the commissioners have continued to ask a lot of questions about whether the group is delivering a needed service – and several commissioners say they expect the recent funding to be the last money the group gets from the county.
One Step Further’s promotional material states that the nonprofit “recommends sentencing options for adults and juveniles, and provides mediation services, life skills/conflict resolution classes, juvenile work sites for unpaid community service and victim restitution, and opportunities for juveniles and their families to resolve conflicts positively.”
The group got $120,000 from the commissioners this year, even though Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing only recommend $20,000 for mediation services. A few days before the budget was adopted, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Bill Bencini told the Rhino Times that the $100,000 for One Step Further wasn’t in the budget, but Bencini said that it was one of the few things that could get added at the last minute.
An effort by Democratic Commissioners Ray Trapp and Carolyn Coleman got that money put into the budget with some 11th-hour politicking, but many questions about the service the group is providing remained.
At $120,000, One Step Further got more county funding than almost any other nonprofit that the county funds, yet county staff say Guilford County doesn’t use the services at all for a variety of reasons.
In the past, Guilford County has justified spending the $100,000 because One Step Further took referrals from the county’s Pretrial Services division, which works to provide oversight for accused criminals in the court system in order for them to await trial out of jail. Judges are more likely to let the accused out of jail if they’re supervised by Pretrial Services, and at one time Pretrial Services used One Step Further in those efforts to keep the jail population down.
In the recent Board of Commissioners budget workshop, Guilford County Pretrial Services Manager Wheaton Casey told the board that her office no longer gives the group any referrals.
Casey said the reasons for that varied from changes in legal system practices to a failure of One Step Further to fill out reports or even to respond to emails that were required for the court system. She said at one time Pretrial Services relied on One Step Further heavily, but that has dropped off to a trickle in recent years.
“In 2013, we had six people use them,” Casey said. “This year, I don’t think we had any.”
Casey also spoke about not being able to get answers from One Step Further that were needed to certify to the courts that the youths had participated in the program; and when they did get answers, Casey said, they sometimes got incorrect information.
“Those reports need to be accurate,” Casey said.
At other times, Casey said, Pretrial Services asked One Step Further for required information but couldn’t get any response at all. She said that, in one case, Pretrial Services sent an email four times to certify a client for the court system but got no response.
“We had some communication issues,” Casey told the board.
According to Casey, another factor was a change in court practices that occurred after the Eve Carson murder in Chapel Hill. Carson was the student body president of the University of Chapel Hill at North Carolina in 2008, when she was brutally murdered, and an accomplice in that crime was a 17-year-old who was out of jail on bond. In the wake of that, judges across the state became inclined to leave people in jail on high bonds rather than release them on bond before trial.
Johnson said her group does good work and is highly effective. She said there had been some issues with emails from Pretrial Services but added that the problems had been ironed out and now things were working smoothly.
Johnson also said it’s true that her organization no longer gets referrals from Pretrial Services, but she said One Step Further continues to keep people out of jail. She said her group gets referrals from the district attorney’s office and from others in the court system rather than from Pretrial Services.
According to Johnson, One Step Further helped 160 youngsters in fiscal 2013-2014. Johnson supplied the county commissioners with a client list of about 145 names of individuals she said were in the groups’ pretrial release program. The list included only first names, a city and zip code, as well as the referring agency. She said addresses were blacked out and last names withheld to protect the identity of the clients.
She said One Step Further helps them get their GEDs, offers anger management training and has taught them job readiness and life skills. She also said those services help prevent the youths from continuing down the wrong path.
“It’s made a difference in the lives of many folks,” Johnson said.
Johnson added that, the county’s referrals for the program began to drop about two years ago.
She said the cost of keeping inmates in jail has been estimated at $72 a day, and she said One Step Further costs the county much less than that.
Trapp said the Board of Commissioners gave One Step Further the $100,000 this year because Johnson provided the commissioners with a better understanding of the important work her group does.
Coleman said it still makes sense for the county to fund the group.
“It seems to me if you are keeping them out of jail, then that’s the important thing,” Coleman said.
According to Coleman, it shouldn’t matter if the group’s referrals come from Pretrial Services, as has been the case in past years, or from other places.
“The point is that they are not in jail,” she said.
Like Coleman, Trapp also said the source of the referrals doesn’t have to be Pretrial Services in order for the county to benefit.
Trapp added that there were other advantages to the program besides keeping kids out of jail.
“It’s also a rehabilitation program,” Trapp said. “It’s about making them productive citizens and teaching them life skills – it’s not just about keeping them out of jail.”
Trapp said some of the Republicans on the board are inclined not to fund any of the nonprofits; however, those organizations provide valuable services.
“If you don’t fund groups to provide these services then you have to bring them in-house, but that doesn’t make sense,” Trapp said. “I just don’t understand the logic of cutting it.”
Commissioner Hank Henning said One Step Further did give the commissioners some accounting of its work right before the budget was passed.
“They did answer some of our questions, but it’s one of those things that, moving forward, we have to ask about accountability,” he said.
He also said Guilford County has other options for funding groups like One Step Further besides just handing them a set lump sum each year.
“Maybe we could pay them as a fee service and pay them per referral,” Henning said.
Henning said the debate over One Step Further has to do with the board’s desire to hold all nonprofits accountable before they get taxpayer funding.
“We can’t be expected to fund everything,” Henning said.
Bencini said that, before the budget was passed, many commissioners’ asked for an answer to the question, “If we’re not using it, why are we paying them?”
Commissioner Alan Branson said that, though One Step Further managed to get county funding this year, he expects that to be the last time. He said that, after December, when Bencini and Commissioner Linda Shaw are replaced by Alan Perdue and Justin Conrad, newly elected Republican commissioners, nonprofits in general are going to find taxpayer money harder to come by.
“I don’t think it’s a bad program,” Branson said of One Step Further, “but I think it’s going to be more and more difficult for these programs to obtain [county] funding. It’s not mandated.”
Branson said he has a problem with government funding the nonprofits unless they performed a mandated service that the county would otherwise have to provide using its own staff.
“I’m not saying many of the programs aren’t worthy, but they’re not mandated,” he said.
Branson asked why taxpayers should fund these types of programs when the county can’t find enough money for emergency services, fire services, the Sheriff’s Department and other services that it’s legally required to provide.