Safe Passage seeks sale of Rock Hill properties

adouglas@heraldonline.comAugust 29, 2013 

Jada Charley

  • Want to help?

    Safe Passage serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in York, Chester, Lancaster and Union counties. The group’s offices and shelter are in Rock Hill. Services are provided through counseling, a 24-hour hotline, support groups, sexual trauma hospital accompaniment and forensic interviews.

    Donations can be made online through www.safepassagesc.org or by mail to Safe Passage, P.O. Box 11458, Rock Hill, SC 29731.

    For information and to reach the executive director, call 803-329-3336.

After the city of Rock Hill denied Safe Passage’s request for help this month, the area’s only nonprofit shelter and counseling service for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault faces financial trouble.

But it has an ally on the York County Council.

Councilman Bump Roddey says that in light of Rock Hill’s decision, he wants to see how county officials can help keep the nonprofit running.

Jada Charley, Safe Passage’s executive director, asked Rock Hill City Council members earlier this month to consider purchasing and leasing back the organization’s shelter and office building.

The council did not vote on the request.

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols said the city gets many requests from outside agencies looking for help.

It’s “imperative” to support Safe Passage, Roddey says, because its services actually save city, county and state taxpayer money by reducing costs related to criminal justice, law enforcement and the Department of Social Services.

York County already provides $20,000 to Safe Passage – less than 3 percent of the organization’s operating budget.

Safe Passage owes about $500,000 on its two buildings, including a tax lien by the Internal Revenue Service. The lien comes from penalties and charges from unpaid payroll taxes and the organization not filing tax returns for two years – something board members say they were unaware of until recently, after Safe Passage’s former director left.

Charley was hired in the spring and later learned of the group’s financial stress.

Bank of America, the group’s lender, values Safe Passage’s buildings at $947,000, she said.

The IRS will lift its lien if the organization can sell its buildings at a price to satisfy the debt.

The group’s administrative building is on Oakland Avenue, near Dave Lyle Boulevard. The location of the shelter is undisclosed, for the protection of its clients.

Safe Passage wants the city to buy its property not because it can’t pay its bills but because most grants that the organization receives can’t be used toward mortgage payments.

However, some grants are available to pay rent, Charley said.

Having someone else own the buildings while Safe Passage still pays monthly rent is a creative way to stay open, said Jennifer Solomon, longtime member of the organization’s board.

Solomon was disappointed that the city of Rock Hill didn’t act on Safe Passage’s request for help, she said.

“Yes, they would have to put the money up,” she said, “but we would be making the payments.”

Double rent payment

Rock Hill’s chief financial officer, Anne Harty, crunched the numbers on buying Safe Passage’s buildings.

Taking out a 20-year mortgage on property valued at nearly $1 million would cause the organization’s monthly payments to jump to $6,200, according to the city’s estimate.

The estimate is nearly double what Safe Passage pays now.

Even if the group wants to sell its buildings for less than the appraised value, it might not be reasonable or acceptable to the organization’s donors for Rock Hill to pay less for the property, Harty said.

While the city can take advantage of issuing tax-exempt debt, there are laws that prevent government agencies from using lease payments to pay down that debt, she said.

Still, Solomon and others say that if Safe Passage shuts down, various government agencies eventually will be using taxpayer dollars to fill the gap in services.

Without Safe Passage’s educational efforts – which help prevent violence and sexual assaults – police, DSS and court systems will see more offenders and victims, Solomon said.

Without a safe place for victims to turn, more people may die in violent crimes or a victim’s injuries could be more severe, leading to higher health care costs, she said.

Now, with Safe Passage partnering with hospitals, police, courts and DSS, Solomon said, the cost to serve victims is lower for all agencies.

It’s difficult to place an exact figure on how much money an organization like Safe Passage saves taxpayers, Solomon said, but the benefit is real.

Perhaps Rock Hill officials don’t see how helping Safe Passage is an investment, she said, because “they don’t see the local cost (now), because we’re taking care of that.”

‘Downstream’ costs

Roddey agrees with Solomon, he said.

“If we don’t spend the money now to support this service, we’re going to spend twice as much through other support services we provide,” the councilman said.

Supporting services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault is no different than taxpayer support for programs that aim to help at-risk youths, Roddey said.

The average resident may not see how Safe Passage’s services save taxpayer money “downstream,” he said, but he believes the organization “is definitely an asset.”

He hopes York County will explore Charley’s offer.

York County already owns a downtown Rock Hill building in use by a nonprofit center. The Renew Our Community (ROC) center uses a county-owned building on White Street to house multiple services for homeless, unemployed and financially struggling York County residents.

Roddey says ROC doesn’t pay York County rent but the organization maintains the building and pays its own bills.

Allowing ROC to use the space ensures that the building doesn’t deteriorate while not being used for county purposes and it deters vandalism, he said.

In addition, ROC relieves strain on government services that would otherwise be needed, he said.

Cities help elsewhere

Lease agreements between nonprofit organizations and local governments exist in other places.

In Whiteville, N.C., Families First, Inc. – an organization similar to Safe Passage – leases its shelter and office building from Columbus County. The county also contributes about $8,000 annually to the organization’s budget.

Like Safe Passage, Families First is the only service in its area that offers free counseling and a shelter to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In Greenville, N.C., a similar situation exists with a lease agreement between the city and the Center for Family Violence Protection to run a shelter.

There are other examples of similar partnerships in South Carolina, Charley said.

The purchase-and-lease-back option is especially beneficial to Safe Passage now, she said, as the organization has seen its unrestricted donations dwindle over the past few years.

The organization estimates that gifts have dropped off by 20 percent since 2007.

The organization is looking to sign a long-term lease, Charley said, which would ensure stability of its services and likely yield the owner a property that has appreciated over time.

When local victims services have been at risk, Safe Passage has stepped up, its supporters say.

Years ago, Safe Passage took the responsibility for serving victims of sexual assault after a separate York County agency serving that purpose was struggling.

Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett was a board member for the sexual assault resource center at the time.

Unlike years past when one service could absorb another, he said, “there’s not another agency to fold (Safe Passage) into.”

He can’t imagine how the county would handle domestic violence and sexual assault cases without Safe Passage, he said.

Among other services Safe Passage offers: trained counselors accompany victims on hospital visits and sit in on police questioning.

Without the organization, a rape victim or victim of domestic violence would “just have to tough it out,” Brackett said, “and that’s unacceptable.”

Safe Passage helps Brackett and others ensure justice is served in cases of abuse, he said.

In instances of violence or sexual abuse toward children, he said, Safe Passage’s trained forensic interviewers provide evidence that is stronger in court than interviews from any other source.

Rock Hill Police Detective Kris Quate said Safe Passage is instrumental during criminal investigations.

Children will open up to a trained counselor in a way that they might not to a police officer, he said.

Safe Passage’s approach with families and children also helps prevent future abuse, Quate said, which can reduce the need for further law enforcement intervention.

One Rock Hill City Council member asked to consider Safe Passage’s proposal is a part-time employee at the organization’s shelter.

Councilwoman Sandra Oborokumo said that had the council taken a vote, she would have recused herself. But she wishes someone will help Safe Passage with its request. She said she works at night on weekends at Safe Passage’s shelter.

While it doesn’t look like Rock Hill will be stepping in to help, Oborokumo says maybe an individual in the community or a local real estate company can buy the properties if York County cannot.

The shelter, she said, is a “safe haven” for women and children who “are there because of a traumatic situation.

“If Safe Passage were not there ... some of them would maybe not survive.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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