Local shelter hopes to hire director

Bridge board looks to city and county for funding help

By Luke Groskopf

Journal Staff Writer

Right now the Bridge Emergency Shelter is a ship without a captain. Staff and supporters would like to find one, but first they need to find the cash.

M.B. McAfee, who chairs the board of directors, visited the Montezuma County commissioners Monday in an effort to secure funding to hire a full-time executive director.

She asked the county to contribute $25,000 a year, beginning in 2014, to pay half the director's salary of $50,000. The Cortez City Council listened to a similar pitch from McAfee last month that was "received favorably," according to City Manager Shane Hale.

While they stopped short of committing any money, councilors suggested increasing municipal court fees and tacking a surcharge onto traffic citations to raise money for the Bridge.

The council Tuesday night approved a first reading of increasing the court fees by $10. The item must be approved three times before it can be enacted.

The plan is to donate the money raised by the surcharges to the shelter monthly, but Hale on Tuesday night said that would ultimately be a council decision.

Still unknown is if the funds raised would be counted toward what the city donates to the shelter for 2014.

Now the county will be faced with decisions of its own.

Open since January 2006, the Bridge didn't hire its first executive director until 2010. Sara Wakefield spent two years at the helm before moving to Durango's Manna Soup Kitchen last spring. Her successor's tenure was brief - only three months - because the board chose to terminate the position in September for budget reasons.

Since then McAfee has functioned as a de facto director, unpaid, on top of her role as chair. She expressed concern about being stretched too thin.

"I'm not sure I'm doing a great job at either position at the moment," she admitted on Monday.

McAfee is making her case to the commissioners and city council now to give them ample time to crunch the numbers.

"I appreciate (getting) requests like this in advance," said Montezuma County Administrator Ashton Harrison. "Often people will come in here after the (year's) budget is already adopted and it's too late."

The county already supports the Bridge in-kind with free rent and utilities at the old jail building off Mildred Road and Empire Street. The shelter is responsible for maintenance costs.

"You have no clue how grateful we are (for the facility)," McAfee said.

Other board members and shelter staff attended the meeting as a show of solidarity and to add comments of their own. They presented the request for money as a wise fiscal move.

The homeless will always be with us, they said, and housing them inside the shelter is the most cost-effective option. Alternatives, like the emergency room or county jail, are pricier, and taxpayers end up footing the bill anyway.

"The cheapest option is a viable Bridge," said board member and Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane.

In the nonprofit sector, a crucial administrative task is writing grant proposals to government agencies and private foundations. Tailoring them to each prospective donor, with customized formats and phrasing, is an acquired skill. Finding available grants and completing the paperwork takes many hours, and none is guaranteed to be accepted.

Paying a director is a major expense. But they can be a net financial positive, McAfee said, because of the extra revenue they bring in. Wakefield's grant-writing collections more than covered her own salary.

The county commissioners were vocally sympathetic to the Bridge's plight. Now comes the task of carving out space in a tight budget.

"We know what you're after. We know what you do. We'll take this into account for next year's budget," Keenan Ertel said.

It's been a harrowing few months for the shelter, cash-wise.

In November - two months after eliminating the director position - McAfee called a stakeholders meeting to ask for emergency monies. She described it as a last-ditch plea for help.

"I wasn't sure we could stay open for the season, much less the future," she said Monday.

The meeting did its job. The shelter cobbled together donations from the city, county, Southwest Memorial Hospital, Axis Health System and Christian Ministries to keep the doors open.

But McAfee and company are eager to move beyond makeshift solutions, and they think a permanent director is a means of doing so.

Adding an on-site commercial kitchen is another project on the Bridge's radar. Right now it relies on Grace's Kitchen (based in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church) and Hope's Kitchen (First United Methodist Church) for meals. Constructing a kitchen, depending on in-kind assistance, will cost about $30,000. McAfee said she has been promised a "handsome donation" of $15,000, but needs to come up with matching funds from other sources.

From mid-October to mid-April, the Bridge welcomes homeless and other individuals who need a warm place to sleep at night. Unlike most shelters, it accepts intoxicated guests as long as they behave and are quarantined on the "wet side" apart from sober guests. It also operates the year-round Cortez Day Labor Center to help the unemployed find work.

Since launching in May 2010, the Day Labor Center has helped more than 1,800 people network with 300 local employers, McAfee said.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com

Journal reporter Michael Maresh contributed to this article.