It was just a few weeks ago that we were feeling optimistic about the future of the Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council. The state had removed the agency’s high-risk status, the board’s chairman had stepped down, and the new executive director was off to an encouraging start.
Our optimism has waned somewhat in the past days, though we’re still hopeful that they’re moving in the right direction. As reporter Steve Jones has chronicled this week, the agency’s demon’s have come back to haunt them, notably the Head Start center being built in Choppee and a history of violating open meetings laws.
The Head Start center is simply a matter of the agency feeling the consequences of prior questionable decisions. The center in Choppee was always dubious, built too far away in rural Georgetown County to be useful for many of the children served by Head Start, with a budget seemingly pulled out of the air and begun without a loan in place to pay for it. But work did begin nevertheless, $300,000 worth of work on the federal dime, and now the feds quite sensibly want to see something for their investment. Either finish it, they’ve told the agency, or give us our $300,000 back.
It would be more than difficult for the Waccamaw EOC, which gets most of its funding from federal sources, to find $300,000 elsewhere with which to repay the feds. And the agency’s new executive director, James Pasley, said finishing the center is possible with its budget. So it seems that Choppee will soon be the site of a nearly $1 million Head Start center. We agree with Pasley’s suggestion. There’s not much else the agency can do at this point, but it’s disappointing that this ill-conceived project will be the legacy of the EOC’s recent mismanagement. We hope they can turn the lemon of a center into a plus – and with the correct leadership it’s certainly more than a hope – but we can’t help feeling the regret of seeing their limited resources go toward a project that will help fewer children than was possible.
When it comes to leadership, we’ve so far been impressed with that of Pasley, particularly when we discovered that he’s still waiting for his first paycheck. As Jones reported Thursday, the first chairman of the Waccamaw EOC’s board, David Eagleton, has sent conflicting letters to Pasley about his salary, first offering him $114,000 to lead the troubled agency. Eagleton assured Pasley that the other board members agreed with the offer, though it had never been discussed or voted on. After Pasley sensibly asked for a vote by the full board to make the salary official, Eagleton responded by cutting the offered salary $20,000, to $95,361. As of this writing, he’s still waiting to hear what he’ll be paid, and Ken McManus of the state Office of Economic Opportunity – overseer of the Waccamaw EOC – was coming into town to get things settled, with the threat of another stint on high-risk status in his back pocket.
It’s worth noting one more time why all of this matters. The council is in charge of about $15 million in federal funds each year, money that originally came from all of our pockets. If you’re part of one of the area households that pays federal income taxes – about 47 percent of the nation’s households pay no income taxes, leaving a little under than 80,000 tax-paying households in the EOC’s tri-county area – you’re paying nearly $200 a year to fund the EOC. It’s important that we know where our money went and that those who are charged with spending it be held accountable to putting it to its best use.