City takes over troubled Seattle Indian Services Center
From the outside, the Pearl Warren Building, 606 12th Ave. S.,
doesn’t look so good. The south wall of the old adobe building is wrapped in plastic to keep water from leaking in. Staff members aren’t allowed to use two rooms of the building because of the damage.
The building needs more than
$2 million in repairs, according to the estimates from the city of Seattle.
Even worse for wear is the organization the building houses, the Seattle Indian Services Commission. A 2011 audit revealed the agency had more than $70,000 in unaccounted expenditures; some of these appeared to pay off the personal loans of a staff member. A string of previous audits showed trouble at the agency dating back to 2002.
The findings alarmed Seattle City Councilmembers.
“These are not documents that come from the city. These come from the state auditor, and not just one report, but multiple reports,” said Councilmember Nick Licata. “It’s a serious situation.”
Now, the city of Seattle is stepping in. On Oct. 1, Mayor Mike McGinn, with city council approval, reorganized the board and appointed a new chairperson to prevent the organization from defaulting on its loans.
Much is at stake. The commission owns the Leschi Building, 611 12th Ave. S., and the Pearl Warren building. Taken together, the buildings house the Seattle Indian Health Board’s medical clinic, and the Seattle Indian Center’s food bank, hot meal program and shelter. The city’s actions are meant to preserve these programs.
But some members of the commission’s board of directors say the takeover, billed as an emergency measure, comes at the same time as another opportunity: The Seattle Indian Health Board, which had previously offered to buy and repair the buildings, hopes to expand its presence on the properties, squeezing out the Seattle Indian Center.
Can’t pay the rent
The Seattle Indian Services Commission formed in 1972 as an umbrella organization to fund other agencies providing direct services.
The group purchased property in the International District and in 1988 built the Leschi Building and in 1995 built the Pearl Warren Building to house two agencies: the Seattle Indian Health Board, which serves 7,000 clients a year with medical, dental, substance abuse and mental health services, and the Seattle Indian Center, which hosts a hot meal program, food bank and shelter.
Up until Oct. 1, the board was made up of eight people, two each from the Seattle Indian Center, the Seattle Indian Health Board, the American Indian Women’s Service League and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.
The commission, which currently has just $50,000 in the bank, is financially unstable because the board set rent too low to pay off its $6.7 million in bonds for the property. The Seattle Indian Center was behind on rent, according to the audit.
The auditor said the board had a conflict of interest because four members of the eight-person board represent the Health Board and the Indian Center, the two tenants of the properties the commission manages.
A lack of leadership from the commission’s board put the organization in trouble and allowed the buildings to fall into disrepair, the auditor concluded.
At the recommendation of the Washington State Auditor, the city took over administration of the commission Oct. 1.
McGinn informed four of the board members that they were out and appointed the city’s own director of Finance and Administration Services, Fred Podesta, as the board’s chair.
The city council requested that the human services they provide continue to operate, and city officials say they’re merely taking an administrative role. That could mean anything from helping the commission back on its feet to selling the building to a wealthier organization.
“What we really want is the property taken care of by an organization that has the financial wherewithal,” said Kenny Pittman, senior policy advisor for the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations.
The Seattle Indian Health Board might be that agency. More than a year ago, the health board offered to purchase the property and repair the buildings, but half of the board members rejected the idea.
Now that McGinn has restructured the board, the idea is back on the table. It’s politically viable. Only one of the dissenting board members remains.
Ralph Forquera, executive director of the health board, said the idea is financially viable, too.
“It’s tighter today, but we still feel we can probably manage it,” he said.
At least one board member thinks the ouster of her fellow board members was wrong, and that the city is going too far.
Andrina Abada, who has served on the board since 2007, concedes the four agencies that comprise the Seattle Indian Services Commission have for years engaged in what she calls “interagency warfare” and that has prevented them from addressing their problems.
She worries that if the city and health board take control of the buildings, it will diminish the commission’s ability to provide services such as hot meals and shelter.
Abada also believes the city and the health board see a pretext to gain control of a property ripe for redevelopment. The buildings sit close to the Yesler Terrace neighborhood which the city recently rezoned for high rises.
Abada wants the city to give the commission time to help the Seattle Indian Center move into a smaller area so it can stay on the property and eventually help repair the buildings.
As the only board member who voted against the health board taking over the buildings, Abada is braced for a fight.
“I’m not going to go away,” she said. “I’m going to see this to the end.”
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