Jeff Jardine

Jardine: In past, openness opened doors for YMCA

When Rodney Carpenter took over as the YMCA of Stanislaus County's executive director in 1982, the organization was mired in debt incurred when it built its gymnasium a year earlier.

When he left five years later, the red ink was gone.

"We did it the traditional way," said Carpenter, now retired and living in San Jose. "We brought in a consultant. We got some larger gifts and some smaller gifts. We retired the old debt of the place. We raised, I think, about $300,000."

They were able to dig themselves out of their financial pit in no small part because they had the public's trust even though the local board helped pay for the new gym by selling land that was supposed to belong to the YMCA in perpetuity.

The current YMCA board -- even deeper in debt -- wants to unload the entire facility on McHenry Avenue in Modesto. Under other circumstances, I wouldn't have been surprised to see the community come to the rescue. But this board hasn't exactly been forthcoming with information since The Bee learned last year that the nonprofit was $1.8 million in debt, a deficit that has since grown to $2.5 million. The national organization placed the local YMCA on probation because it hasn't submitted annual audits for the past three years.

Can you imagine telling the Internal Revenue Service you didn't feel like doing your taxes for a few years at a time?

The tragedy of this meltdown is that it could have been avoided with disclosure and openness. Americans, and even folks here in the less-affluent Northern San Joaquin Valley, are a generous and forgiving lot. But like anyone else, they want to know the organizations they support are open and forthright about the way they do business. They want to know that endowment money is being used for its designated purpose. They want to know those in charge are accountable and that the money they contribute is spent wisely.

Instead, this YMCA board clammed up when it really needed to fess up.

Back in the 1970s, the national YMCA prodded its local chapters to become fitness clubs, getting away from what had been the organization's foundation for decades: kids' programs, child care and the like.

Some longtime YMCA employees questioned the shift because so many private clubs sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s in cities across the country.

"If people go to a fitness center, they'll go to the one nearest to their homes," Carpenter said.

The Stanislaus County YMCA opened its indoor therapy swimming pool in 1977 and planned to start construction of the gym in 1980. But the economy tanked. The lender raised the interest rate on the construction loan from 12 percent to 20 percent. The contractor upped his bid by $75,000 to reflect the rising cost of materials. And some YMCA backers, including those in the real estate and automotive businesses, reneged on their pledges because their own businesses were hurting.

So, after delaying construction for a year, the board decided to fund it in part by selling 2.2 acres of the original six acres a dozen supporters had purchased and donated to the YMCA in the 1950s. Among them was Bill Mitchell, a lifelong supporter who served three terms on YMCA boards over the years. Those who knew of the original agreement -- that the land was to remain the YMCA's forever -- were frustrated by the sale.

"I was very much disturbed by it," said Mitchell, now 89.

One other board member voted against the sale as well, but it carried. The board got $280,000 for the land, using the money toward paying for the $665,000 building.

Unlike the current board, those YMCA leaders aired their needs and problems. Consequently, the public stepped up and helped them retire the debt.

And, according to The Bee's files, the YMCA in 1981 held a media workshop for clubs and nonprofits. The Bee co-sponsored the event. The purpose? To teach officials in local nonprofit organizations and clubs how to use and work with the media.

Obviously, that workshop predated the folks on the current board. They've chosen to fault Bee reporter Garth Stapley for exposing the debt and the role of former Chief Executive Officer Steve Smith, who guided the YMCA into its financial morass before leaving last year to become the United Way of Stanislaus' chief marketing officer.

It's a typical case of blaming the messenger instead of dealing with the message. Sit down and actually discuss the issues?

No. Last week Phil McGovern, who took over as chief executive in December, and the board would accept only e-mailed questions from Stapley and then responded with a general news release.

Funny, when he accepted the job 10 months ago, McGovern told The Bee, "I'm not coming to oversee the closing of anything," referring to comments by board members who talked about selling the facility.

The situation in Modesto, he said at the time, "can be righted."

A couple of months later, he claimed the building would not be sold.

"That's off the table," McGovern said. "We'll go forward without it coming to that."

It's back on the table. Now, the only way the YMCA can right itself is to sell the building. McGovern said the deal could close by the end of the year even though he claims there's no buyer in line.

Granted, McGovern works at the behest of the board and I'm guessing -- or at least hoping -- he'd prefer to engage in straight talk.

Still, the concept of expecting the sale to close by New Year's Eve while claiming there is no buyer on the hook is emblematic of the secrecy, bad decisions and spin that led to the YMCA's problems in the first place.

Had the organization been open about its problems, the YMCA could have maintained the community's trust, not to mention keeping the deed to its building.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

  Comments