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Backing for King George County center waning

The three King George County supervisors who voted for the HELP Center last year are questioning the viability of the project after learning a document supporting it was altered.

Supervisors Cedell Brooks Jr., John LoBuglio and Ruby Brabo voted in May 2012 to give 5.5 acres of county land to Project FAITH, a nonprofit group directed by Froncé Wardlaw. She has built more than $20 million worth of housing in King George for low-income, elderly and disabled people, without any cost to the county.

She offered the same arrangement with the HELP Center. The $8.4 million building she proposed would include offices for health and social services, a free clinic, community college classes and a commercial kitchen serving free meals, all under one roof.

Now, the three supervisors are wondering if the project can go forward after discovering last week that the date on a letter supporting the project was changed from 2010 to 2012.

“This one document leads to questions to what else should be looked at,” LoBuglio said. “It makes me wonder why this was done.”

In 2010, Elizabeth Crowther, president of Rappahannock Community College, wrote a letter confirming that RCC planned to be a partner in the new center.

In recent months, community members questioned if the college still planned to rent space. Supervisor Brabo asked Wardlaw for the Crowther letter affirming the college’s support.

Brabo passed the letter along to Ruth Herrink, who owns the King George Journal and has voiced opposition to the HELP Center.

That’s when it was discovered that the cover page was dated March 30, 2012. The second page was dated March 30, 2010.

Wardlaw told The Free Lance–Star that she accepted responsibility for the change, “whether done by me or not,” but she didn’t explain why the date would have been altered.

Wardlaw wrote a letter to Crowther on June 11, expressing her “regret of recent events surrounding your letter.”

In it, Wardlaw said Project FAITH didn’t use the letter with the altered date to seek any kind of financing. She also pointed out that a recent request for Community Development Block Grant funding was based on the free clinic that’s supposed to operate in the HELP Center, not on any kind of educational component.

‘A SERIOUS ALLEGATION’

Crowther hosted a meeting with the King George supervisors on June 6 at the college’s Warsaw campus. She told them her budget had changed and that she no longer planned to rent 30,000 square feet in the HELP Center.

“We may end up doing some support services if the HELP Center comes to pass,” Crowther told The Free Lance–Star last week.

The community college is the second prospective tenant to drop out of the plans. In May, the King George Health Department moved to a space in the Food Lion shopping center off State Route 3.

The department needed more up-to-date space, said Dr. Brooke Rossheim, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District.

Wardlaw, whose office is in the same building as where the Health Department used to be, said mold was a problem, as well.

Brabo said she still supports the concept of the HELP Center and believes it is needed in King George. But she has “questions and concerns about the viability of the project because of the letter.”

Brooks, who may be Wardlaw’s strongest supporter, said earlier this year he is seeking re-election this fall because he wanted to see the HELP Center built.

“It’s very discouraging because I really supported this,” Brooks said. “I don’t think she’s got three votes to get anything on this project now.”

The supervisors said they will wait to hear from County Attorney Eric Gregory about what to do next. Gregory received a copy of the letter from Brabo, just as Herrink did.

“This is a serious allegation,” Gregory said.

‘NOT THE RIGHT COLOR’

Controversy has surrounded the HELP Center from the start.

It took three years for the county and Project FAITH to settle on a performance agreement.

Longtime supervisors Joe Grzeika and Dale Sisson Jr. voted against the project and have continued to state their opposition. Grzeika said he didn’t want to give away county land, and Sisson said he had financial questions that hadn’t been answered.

Before the May 2012 vote, a group of citizens, including Herrink and Fred Davies, met on Realtor Stan Palivoda’s boat in Dahlgren and tried to convince LoBuglio—the swing vote—to oppose the project.

Residents said they didn’t like the idea of giving away a valuable piece of property and feared the project would take business away from others landlords of commercial space.

By February 2013, when Project FAITH presented its annual report, Brooks commented on “all the negativity” being spread in the community regarding the HELP Center.

“There’s a lot of animosity because we gave this woman—an African–American woman—some land, and people got a problem with that,” said Brooks, the only black member of the board.

Wardlaw echoed those sentiments last week. She believes some have opposed the HELP Center because, “I’m not the right color, I’m not the right gender.”

‘POVERTY PIMPS’

In recent months, the only resident to speak at board meetings against the HELP Center has been Arlene Jacovelli, who moved to King George after her husband was transferred to Dahlgren from California.

She’s spoken during the public-comment period at six of eight board meetings since Feb. 19. She’s asked the board to withdraw its application for grant funding for the center, and she filed an extensive Freedom of Information Act request regarding fiscal documents, meeting minutes, emails and discussions about the project.

She’s said she doesn’t like the idea of King George becoming “poverty pimps” and addressing problems that the churches and community groups should deal with on their own. She also accused the supervisors who supported the HELP Center project of “negligence in fiduciary duty” and “cluelessness in fiscal stewardship” because they didn’t research the financial implications of the project before they approved it.

“It is a fiscal fact that projects of this type most certainly are not ‘free’ to the host community” when they rely on federal or state funding, she wrote in a letter to the King George Journal, “and most certainly is not ‘free’ to the taxpayer.” 

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

 

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