Cape County Commission appoints three recommended by SB40 Board, two others

Friday, June 18, 2010
Jeff Baer of Jackson speaks before the Cape Girardeau County Commission and to the crowd during Thursday morning's meeting. Baer is one of twelve applicants for the county board. (Laura Simon)

Supporters of the CGC SB40 Board got a split decision Thursday from the Cape Girardeau County Commission as it appointed three members recommended by the board and two members with ties to the board's sole contractor, VIP Industries.

The appointments, usually a low-key event, have become critical for the future of the board that spends property tax money dedicated to helping the developmentally disabled. The board, with $970,000 in annual revenue and $2.7 million in reserves, is exploring whether it can expand the services it supports and use additional contractors.

The commission chambers were packed well before the appointments. Supporters of the SB40 Board were on the street with signs and supporters of VIP Industries wore red polo shirts with a logo to show their sentiments. The overflow audience in the hallway strained to hear every word.

Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones cast votes against two sitting board members seeking reappointment. Support from 1st District Commissioner Paul Koeper and 2nd District Commissioner Jay Purcell, however, gave vice chairwoman Dory Johnson and longtime board member Arlysse Popp new three-year terms.

Johnson has led the board in looking at expanded services and raising questions about spending practices, property ownership and other aspects of the board's decades-old relationship with VIP Industries. VIP operates a sheltered workshop, where the developmentally disabled are paid based on their productive capacity, three apartment buildings for its clients, a group home and provides other services that include transportation and recreation. The combined finances of all affiliated entities show it had $6.7 million in revenue and $4.8 million in expenses in the year that ended June 30, 2009. Cash reserves totaled $15.1 million.

Purcell cast dissenting votes against a full three-year term for Ruth Ann Dickerson, appointed June 3 to fill out the remaining 27 days of an unexpired term, and Dixie McCollum, appointed to complete the last year of a seat opened by resignation. But with the support of Jones and Koeper, Dickerson and McCollum, both of whom have ties to VIP Industries, were appointed.

Dickerson, a captain with the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department, is the former president of the Cape Girardeau County Association for Retarded Citizens, a not-for-profit agency that is affiliated with VIP Industries. McCollum is a current board member of the association.

The final slot, to fill an unexpired one-year term, went to Bryan Noack, an employee of the Perry County Board for the Developmentally Disabled who lives in Cape Girardeau County. Noack was the commission's only unanimous choice.

Going into the meeting, the two-year feud between Jones and Purcell had injected some certainty into the appointment process -- Purcell had pledged to support all the appointments recommended by the board and Jones had announced he was determined to end the controversy. Koeper was the swing vote, and his votes in favor of Johnson, Popp and Noack proved he is acting independently, Johnson said.

"I believe he is starting to realize what we are trying to do," Johnson said. "We are not people who are out for blood but people trying to get more services out in the community."

As the commission prepared to vote, Koeper said he wanted people who were involved and would balance the competing needs of VIP Industries for support and the demand for expanded services. "I want people on the board from both sides."

In an appeal to the commission, VIP executive vice president Susan Wallis warned against appointments that would divert money from the core mission of the board, which is supporting a sheltered workshop and affiliated services. She noted that in some other counties where SB40 boards support additional services, finances are strained.

"The money was supposed to be for" sheltered workshops "and they are hanging on by a thread," Wallis said.

With the appointments, all nine slots on the board are filled as it tries to rewrite its contact with VIP Industries. Johnson has assumed a leadership role in the absence of chairman Robert Landgraf, who has been missing meetings because of illness.

Landgraf had a close working relationship with Hilary Schmittzehe, chief executive of VIP, and his absence has sparked questions over individual spending items and the overall relationship between the board and VIP. Schmittzehe did not attend the commission meeting.

Jones, who was among the founders of the sheltered workshop in the 1960s, sought to repair his image with the SB40 Board supporters. He and Koeper met with four members in April, and the board members have reported feeling they were being told to back down.

On Thursday, Jones said he approved of the board's efforts to expand services. He held up a photo of a young man who is a VIP client. "This is why I am here," he said. "... That is what is important to me, and I hope we don't lose sight of that."

Purcell has accused Jones of violating the Sunshine Law by holding the meeting with board members. He said after the vote that if he had not become involved, Jones would have used the appointment process to punish board members who had asked questions.

"Clearly there were votes that changed and attitudes that changed because a large group of citizens were involved," he said. "That is as big a deal as the reappointment of the two board members."

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent addresses:

1 Barton Square, Jackson, MO

5616 U.S. 61, Jackson, MO

1330 Southern Expressway, Cape Girardeau, MO

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