Local nonprofit finds a way forward after upheaval

MARFA — After the loss of key grant funding and the unseating of executive staffers threw the Big Bend Community Action Committee into tumult several weeks ago, those left at the organization are rebuilding from the ground up. Last week, leaders of the ailing nonprofit — which provides crucial services to low-income residents across five counties — cut loose yet another grant it was unable to maintain and slashed its board of directors in half. 

The group’s transportation program, which offers rides to medical appointments and more for residents without transit options, will remain intact.

Interim CEO J.D. Newsom said that while the BBCAC’s recent troubles were “unfortunate,” he hoped the current reconstruction would allow the organization to ultimately thrive and continue to serve community members who rely on it.

“My hope is that in going through this process and building a new foundation that the organization will come out stronger than it was when all this started,” said Newsom. “While it’s not ideal, it’s an opportunity to come back in a much better way, to hopefully impact the communities in a better way.”

BBCAC was thrown into disarray in recent weeks when the former leadership’s failure to file mandatory fiscal audits dating back to 2019 led the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) to defund the utility assistance program provided through the group. Executive Director Adan Estrada and Financial Officer Bernie Zelazny were both fired after the defunding, and community leaders assembled to salvage what remains of the organization.

The utility assistance program — TDHCA’s Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program (CEAP) — remains in the process of being transferred to another nonprofit, Community Action Committee of South Central Texas, that will provide the service to Big Bend area residents. At an earlier meeting, Micheal De Young, director of TDHCA’s Community Affairs Division, explained that the federal government required annual audits to ensure funds were being administered properly, and that once years of incomplete audits had piled up, TDHCA’s compliance division could no longer recommend BBCAC for funding. 

BBCAC was then left with the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), a federal grant contracted through TDHCA, which had supplied the nonprofit with $150,000 annually. But BBCAC leadership last week made the decision to voluntarily relinquish that grant. Chairman of the Board and Presidio County Judge Joe Portillo explained that the CSBG funds had been used to cover administrative costs related to the management of other grants — the absence of other sources of funding made the CSBG grant somewhat obsolete.

“Without having other grants available to us, it was truly a moot point,” said Portillo.

Crucially, retaining the CSBG grant would have required BBCAC to complete the outstanding audits that had landed them in hot water in the first place — a costly ordeal, estimated at $25,000 per year, so $75,000 altogether just to catch up. Relinquishing the grant means the organization would not immediately be on the hook for those audits, said Newsom.

Of course, the organization will have to revisit the matter if it chooses to apply for federal grants in the future. For now, with the organization in immediate crisis, relinquishing all federal grants serves as a stopgap measure to stop the bleed.

“We would not have to go back and complete those audits,” said Newsom. “But that also means that If we want to apply for something in the future, you’ve got to get things cleaned up. We wouldn’t be applying for federal grants for a while.”

BBCAC’s transportation program remains afloat with a steady cash flow — that program depends on reimbursements through various organizations, not federal grants, so its revenue stream is not in danger, said Newsom.

To move forward with a leaner operation, the group’s board of directors, previously consisting of 15 members, is now made up of seven. Five of those directors are the county judges representing the counties serviced by the organization — Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Presidio and Brewster counties — and two private members, former Van Horn Mayor Becky Brewster and Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend’s Tona Vega.

Newsom is only temporarily serving as interim CEO during the organization’s crisis period, having been brought on due to his expertise in nonprofit management. But his stint as executive has an unknown expiration date — his duties as director of the Big Bend Regional Hospital District take precedence, he said.

The BBCAC will have to find a way, eventually, to move forward without him. The two options now seem to be appointing a new executive director and continuing as an independent organization, or finding another organization to take on the services it is meant to provide, said Newsom.

“Both of those options are going to take time,” said Newsom. “I’m hoping to build a foundation in the short term so they can operate independently as effectively as they can while the board figures out what direction is going to make the most sense.”