End of an era

Metrolina AIDS Project abruptly closes shop, to reopen under new name, leadership

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: February 7, 2009 in Cover Stories

CHARLOTTE — It is the end of an era, as Charlotte’s largest AIDS service organization, founded by six gay men in 1985, comes to its end. After more than two decades of service in the greater Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP) as the community has known it will cease to exist, as it shuts down and begins operation under a new name and leadership.

The surprising move, never publicly announced, but revealed by The Charlotte Observer during the last week in January, comes after more than a year of speculation that operations at MAP weren’t going all that smoothly.

MAP’s demise
On Jan. 26, former MAP executive director Ann White left her position at the organization. Associate Director Robert Oltz declined to discuss her departure with anyone saying only that White “left as of 5 p.m.” that Monday. The same day, 32 MAP employees were told they’d be laid off.

Only two days later, however, Oltz said the decision to completely shutdown had been reversed and that the employees would stay.

“We thought we might be closing,” Oltz told Q-Notes. “We’ve had discussions with other providers and we are working through a transitioning process so that we will continue to provide services.”

Dr. Jose Diaz, a consultant for the federal government, is currently aiding MAP with “technical assistance” during their transition from the old organizational entity to a new one. Diaz told The Observer that federal funding for the organization — about $1.2 million in Ryan White CARE Act funds — had been “put on hold” pending a “routine review.” Diaz said MAP was not under investigation and that the money could be restored to MAP’s successor.

Oltz said the Part D grants, a portion of the Ryan White funding, had been reinstated on Jan. 29.

Diaz told The Observer that they had spoken with the organization’s donors and that they were willing to continue funding MAP’s successor. On Jan. 30, a group of community organizations, including the county health department and city government, convened in support of MAP, which requested the county government advance them money on their contract so that they can continue operation through the transition.

Past improprieties?
Concerns over rumored financial mismanagement and “exit strategy” discussions can be traced back as far as mid-to-late 2007.

Newly revealed information conflicts with what Q-Notes had been told by several sources in February 2008 and earlier.

In a Feb. 23, 2008 article, Q-Notes reported on MAP’s loss of funding support from Carolina Celebration, an LGBT-oriented group that raised tens of thousands of dollars for the organization each year. Some of Carolina Celebrations’ members and supporters had been founding members and directors of MAP.

In the same article, Q-Notes revealed that $4,000 from the Dennis Thaw Fund, to which Carolina Celebration contributed, had been misappropriated by MAP’s board of directors. Carolina Celebration board member and founder Ed DePasquale told Q-Notes that the money had been reimbursed to the fund after being used to pay for an education conference.

But on Jan. 30, Oltz revealed that the Thaw money had never been approved by MAP’s board, but rather solely by Dan King, a member of the board and an officer of Carolina Celebration.

“We’ve been skirting this issue for a year now,” Oltz said regarding the Thaw Fund. “I’m tired of dealing with it.”

Also, in 2007 a source who asked to remain anonymous said then-MAP Board President Robert Dogens had suggested discussing an “exit strategy” for the organization.

In Q-Notes’ original February 2008 article, Dogens declined to comment. He recently told Q-Notes that some of his comments might have “been taken out of context” and, as far as he knew, MAP “never went into debt beyond” normal expenditures and payables.

‘Donations never picked up’
As winter turned to spring in early 2008, all seemed to be heading in the right direction for MAP. White and Oltz assured Q-Notes that the situation was improving and that debts were being paid down.

White said the agency had recently doubled its case management staff and was working with the d-UP! initiative targeting young, African-American men who have sex with men. They had also decreased the wait time for service intake, expanded its AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) training classes and had increased the availability of low-cost housing options for clients.

Then the group announced it would be opening a medical clinic with assistance from a five-year, $360,000 U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration grant. Scheduled to open Oct. 20, the clinic never did.

According to The Observer, Oltz said MAP had “neglected to get approval for reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid, health programs for the poor, elderly and disabled.”

The current situation leading to the on-the-verge closure of MAP, Oltz said, had “transpired over several weeks” and stemmed partly from organizational problems surrounding the opening of the medical clinic.

“The government had suspended our Part C and Part D grants because they felt the clinic had not moved quickly enough to get open and see clients,” he said.

MAP Associate Director Robert Oltz

Other than ongoing payables, Oltz said MAP has no extraordinary debt currently. He’s adamant that there has been no financial mismanagement at the organization. “If there had, I wouldn’t still have a job,” he said. He also said that the current situation was unrelated to any concerns over past finances. “This is more related to an ongoing concern that donations have never really picked up.”

Why the suspension of Ryan White funding would lead to the close-to-complete closure of MAP remains unclear, although Oltz said he’d be able to discuss the situation in greater detail in coming days. The group’s next annual 990 financial report wasn’t available by press time.

Oltz has assured that the organization’s aim is to keep their services for clients relatively unchanged. “If someone walks into our offices on Monday and needs help, we’ll be there,” he said on Thursday, Jan. 29. While Q-Notes had received information that some clients were going without case management, Oltz said those rumors were entirely false and that clients were receiving care.

The new non-profit entity succeeding MAP will begin formation as early as next week. Other area AIDS service organizations, like the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), could end up picking up many of the services MAP once offered. Although RAIN’s board of directors met in closed session on Jan. 29, details on sharing service responsibility weren’t readily available by press time. Q-Notes attempted contacting RAIN communications director Susan Ingle and president Debbie Warren. Those calls remained unreturned by press time.

Concerns over appropriate board oversight have prompted questions on who will sit on any new non-profit’s board. Oltz assured Q-Notes that the new non-profit’s board would be comprised entirely of new individuals.

Past president Dogens remains concerned for the future of HIV/AIDS care in Charlotte. “MAP has served the community for 20-some years and they serve a vital role for people living with HIV/AIDS,” Dogens told Q-Notes. “MAP has great people and they’re passionate for what they do.”

Dogens added that he hopes MAP can get back on its feet. “It would be unfortunate for the Charlotte community to lose that.

“If MAP no longer exists it will leave a huge gap,” he said. “The most important thing is that they get back the community support and be able to continue care.”

Updates to the Feb. 7, 2009 print edition:

Meeting with MAP
Q-Notes was scheduled to speak to MAP Associate Director Robert Oltz and newly-appointed Interim Executive Director Dr. Jose Diaz on Thursday, Feb. 5. Due to conflicts with Diaz’s schedule that meeting has been postponed until the week of Feb. 8.

This is a developing story. As such information published in the Feb. 7 print edition might have changed. Updates and new stories will be published here and elsewhere on Q-Notes Online.

Correction
In the original Jan. 29 Q-Notes Online article on this subject,we attributed Ann White as the source for information regarding the reimbursement of Dennis Thaw Fund monies. That person was Ed DePasquale.