Charities fear United Way issue may cost needy

Take everything wrong in Charlotte and multiply it. More homeless, more dropouts, more hungry families, more abused women, more desperate people.

That's what charities linked to United Way of Central Carolinas expect, should the Gloria Pace King pay controversy cause a predicted plummet in donations during the agency's annual fund drive.

The campaign's Sept. 5 kickoff couldn't be more poorly timed, falling less than two weeks after the agency's board of directors admitted it was mistaken to have paid King $1.2 million in salary and benefits last year.

This week, the board relieved King of her duties, apologized to the community and announced a committee will try to find out what went wrong.

But all this may have come too late to appease angry donors, who view the salary as grand excess.

Some companies have already announced plans not to participate in the campaign, including Shook Kelly, a Charlotte architectural firm. It sent out e-mails to its 32 Charlotte employees Tuesday, telling them the company was opting out for the first time in nearly 15 years. Employees were encouraged to write checks directly to the charity of their choice.

Company co-founder Terry Shook says he called United Way and told them of his decision.

“Given the controversy surrounding the executive director's compensation package, I could not see having my staff supporting that kind of infrastructure,” says Shook. “I just don't think charities require infrastructures that are similar to international banks, and require people who head them to be compensated so much.”

Bigger operations in Charlotte, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, are also preparing for a tough sell during this year's campaign. Superintendent Peter Gorman, a United Way board member, said he'll honor whatever the district's 19,800 employees decide to do.

“I don't think it's unreasonable to think there will be a drop in the dollars raised at CMS,” he said.

Even a small drop could be disastrous for charities that depend heavily on United Way. Some get as much as 30 percent of their budget from the agency.

Deronda Metz, director of social services for the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte, says a 5 percent drop in its United Way money would translate to 250 people being refused admission to the Center of Hope shelter in 2009. The need for beds is already too great, she says, due to the slumping economy. About 320 women currently are being served by the charity, she says.

“We're turning away 15 to 20 people a day now, because we don't have enough room,” says Metz. “This is the place where police bring people who have no place else to go. Last night, we had an elderly lady that the police brought in, seeking shelter, and we didn't have room. It was so difficult to watch. She left with the police, and I don't know where they took her. It really bothered me.”

Crisis Assistance Ministry is also turning away an increasing number of people, about 20 percent more than at the same time last year. The ministry helps people who can't pay rent and utility bills, problems that have worsened as unemployment has risen, says Carol Hardison, the ministry's director.

“We have an average of 125 people in our lobby in the mornings,” says Hardison, who admits the charities were just as upset as the public over the controversy.

“We understand the anger of people out there. We have experienced frustration ourselves. But when I walk through the lobby, I see 125 hurting people and I can't imagine having to look at them and announce they'll get no help because some people in the community made a mistake.”

Among the first in the community to raise concerns over the King controversy was the council of agency executives, which consists of the heads of the 91 agencies supported by United Way. The council met with United Way board members two months ago, when news of King's salary was made public, and urged the board to take action to “correct the situation.”

Jane McIntyre, chairman of the council, says the executives are satisfied with the board's decision to replace King and to take steps to make sure the situation is not repeated. She says the council is concerned but hopeful about the fund drive.

“My worst nightmare is the campaign falling short and us all being faced with having to cut services to people, so rebuilding public trust is critical,” says McIntyre, who heads the YWCA Central Carolinas, which shelters the homeless and supports after-school programs for needy kids.

Carol Hardison's concern: “That the community will forget that the United Way is about serving vulnerable women, men and children in the community. And it's not about mistakes in judgment.”

Staff Writer Eric Frazier contributed