When the Nodaway County Senior Center was notified its bid for services with the Northwest Missouri Area Agency on Aging was rejected in July …
MARYVILLE, Mo. — Nearly four years after the Nodaway County Senior Center lost federal funding, the organization appears no closer to securing it — and the head of the state-designated oversight agency charged with distributing that funding says it’s because the center’s board and administrator have taken few steps to meet the required standards.
As their organization continues to rely on private funds and county dollars only, senior center Administrator Amie Firavich and Nodaway County Senior Citizens Senate members have expressed a range of confusion, frustration and resignation, while at all times attempting to turn the blame onto the agency charged with oversight of those federal dollars, Young at Heart Resources — a continuation of the public line they’ve hewn to since 2017, when the center lost its federal funding for the first time in about 30 years.
That seismic shift for the center’s funding came after a whistleblower complaint to the Northwest Missouri Area Agency on Aging, now Young at Heart, which alleged cash donations, including those from meals, were not being handled or tracked appropriately. Since then, the senior center has embarked on a public campaign to discredit the agency, while extensive interviews and reviews of records from both organizations show that the senior center has done little to address the underlying concerns about internal controls that resulted in the loss of funding.
Young at Heart is one of 10 designated area agencies across the state which determine where to distribute federal funding earmarked for senior services. Until 2017, the Nodaway County Senior Center had consistently been one of those recipients, receiving between $100,000-$150,000 annually in the years leading up to 2017, according to public records made available by Pro Publica.
According to current Young at Heart CEO Michael Stopka, who took over in 2019 and was not associated with the agency in 2017, the whistleblower complaint, in part, centered around money being held in a “cottage cheese container” in Firavich’s office until the end of the day, at which point she would record the daily total herself, rather than having at least two people count each contribution as it came in. Then, Stopka said, the cash was not deposited in the bank regularly.
“Sometimes it was weeks, months,” he said. “So there was really no indication to really know how much money was coming in.”
The complaint triggered an audit and investigation by the agency, which put the senior center into a “high risk” category, issued a scathing report and told the senior center’s board it had 60 days to remedy the issues found or the center may lose its contract. After an extension for more time, the center ultimately did lose its contract, and each subsequent application filed by the center since then has been rejected for the same primary reason: refusal to address internal financial controls.
2020 site visits
On May 21 of last year, a Young at Heart monitor came to evaluate the Nodaway County Senior Center for the bid it had submitted, once again seeking the same kind of funding for in-home and congregate meal service.
The subsequent report issued by the agency, which notes items that don’t meet the required state standards, was unsparing in its concern, citing more than 20 individual violations ranging from improper food temperatures, to labor law posters not being posted properly, to the most serious items that involved — again — a lack of financial controls.
Stopka said it was an unusual number of items in noncompliance.
“Yes, it is, especially for a center that has a seasoned administrator that has been there for quite a long time,” Stopka said. Firavich has been at the center for 14 years. “I believe she knows the regulations.”
Most of the issues were what many people would consider fairly minor and easily rectified: plates were hand-dried with paper towels instead of air-dried as required by state regulations, the center didn’t record the daily temperature of the milk it served and Firavich had not logged the required four hours per quarter of in-service food safety training, among several similar notes.
Others, like financial controls for the use of the center’s debit card, were more concerning to the agency. The report said that the center’s inventory and food costs had not been updated since December 2019, that delivery meal route sheets were not always signed or even available for viewing by the monitor and that meals were being left for recipients without wellness checks being performed.
Although there were many issues the agency cited that would need to be cleaned up in order to restore eligibility, the debit card, and its lack of supporting documentation provided to Young at Heart, became a microcosm of the agency’s concerns about the center.
According to the May site visit report, Young at Heart was looking for answers to three basic questions about the card, and did not receive them:
- Who approves the use of the card
- What is typically charged to the card
- Who reconciles the receipts with the statements
Firavich and three board members who met with The Forum, some during multiple interviews — board president Carolyn Franks, vice president Joe Baumli and Ray Courter — contested that they had the proper documentation, and did show The Forum some incomplete records. But board members admitted that some of the paperwork Young at Heart asked for — like evidence that could establish a chain showing when the card was used, who used it and what was purchased with it — either did not exist or was not readily accessible.
Additionally, although Firavich and the board members maintained they had such records, they admitted they had never actually given them to Young at Heart. Firavich said this was because she was never specifically asked.
Four months later, after viewing the results from the May visit and getting a chance to resubmit the bid to Young at Heart, the agency arrived at the senior center for another monitoring in September to find Firavich unprepared, its subsequent report noted, and with no additional information available about the debit card, either.
“And we wanted to see some effort, and policy implementations and internal controls,” Stopka said. “I mean it’s like she really didn’t really try or really care, really. I mean that’s the impression I got, and staff.”
And at no point after the May report cited the center for not having the required records did any board member or Firavich, they told The Forum, ever propose to share with Young at Heart what documentation they said the senior center had. That held true during the September site visit, when Firavich again said that she did not share any documents about the debit card’s financial controls with Young at Heart, again because they had not specifically asked her for them during the monitoring.
“We’ve never seen any of that, she’s never produced it,” Stopka said. “My biggest shocker is, between May and September, when she knew exactly what we wanted, she just didn’t have it.”
Further, Stopka said the debit card’s controls have been an issue flagged by his agency since the 2017 investigation.
An internal review of the senior center’s practices conducted by board members, dated Jan. 31, 2019 and provided to The Forum this week, was intended to address some of the findings from that 2017 investigation.
Appended to the report was a bullet-pointed list of recommendations prepared by a senior center board subcommittee. Intended to be completed by the end of April 2019, the first item on the list was: “Stop using Bank Debit Card.”
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Despite its hesitation to accept the senior center’s bids for meal services, Young at Heart offered two other proposals to partner with the center: an offer to take over the center’s kitchen operations, and an offer to purchase frozen meals from the center that Young at Heart would deliver.
Although the senior center’s board and Young at Heart spent several months discussing the proposal for Young at Heart to run the kitchen and lease out the space at $50,000 per year, board members told The Forum they viewed the offer as a backup plan in case their bids were rejected. After their final bid was rejected in September 2020, Stopka pulled the offer from the table.
“Well, once they submitted that RFP, that’s really a competitive bid, and then they said this is what we want to do,” Stopka said. “I think their goal was never to do any kind of direct services, they always want an RFP. They want more money, but on their own terms — that’s what they want. And we can’t do that.”
However, in the letter rejecting the September bid provided to The Forum by the senior center, Young at Heart offered another alternative: the agency would purchase frozen meals from the senior center for its existing frozen meal delivery program.
This plan was ultimately rejected by the senior center, which cited a lack of freezer space. Additionally, an email provided by the senior center shows that Franks, the board president, presented a counteroffer in which the senior center would sell hot meals to Young at Heart, with the senior center then delivering those hot meals to Young at Heart clients who opted for them instead. Firavich said the senior center did look for an appropriate freezer, and submitted a grant for one, but it was rejected.
Stopka said each offer was met with “resistance, and just hostility,” but said he would have been willing to wait until the center was able to get a freezer to store the meals — which he estimated would have brought in about $5,000 per month for the senior center.
“Oh yeah, I mean, we would’ve worked with them,” Stopka said. “We were purchasing meals from InterServ (in St. Joseph); we could’ve kept doing that for several more weeks or months. But they have not even tried.”
Board members and Firavich strongly disputed the notion that they had been uncooperative or unwilling to find solutions in negotiations with the senior center, and in a meeting requested by the senior center with The Forum, Courter and Franks said they were surprised by that characterization.
“I didn’t see it as a master-servant relationship,” Courter said. “That’s how it feels, when they’re using their bid process as they, the master, holding the money, and we’re just, you know, we’re the servant as we’re trying to position ourselves to be able to (win the bid). … Anyway, it was just a surprise to me, that tone.”
Throughout multiple interviews with senior center board members and Firavich, they provided varying explanations for why they believed Young at Heart was unwilling to contract them for meal services again, ranging from lingering animosity due to the 2017 investigation, to a determination that because the senior center was surviving on its own, it didn’t need federal funding.
But Stopka said the reason is both clear and simple: meet the same state standards as the 20 other centers that contract with Young at Heart.
“Because those were serious, really critical violations, and really, that’s standard,” Stopka said. “And we keep everybody at the same high standard, and we wouldn’t tolerate what was discovered in Nodaway in 2017 anywhere else.
“… They’re still at that high risk, and unless they bring it up, we really can’t contract them. They remain at that high risk, and we want to see that effort put in to address those violations: show us internal controls. And the professional relationship, cooperation — really work with us.”
The agency is especially wary, Stopka said, because although the senior center’s board conducted a cursory review of controls after the whistleblower complaint in 2017, the board never conducted a professional audit to show where funds had been spent. That unwillingness to meet the required standards coupled with the lack of third party investigation has made Young at Heart uncomfortable with awarding a contract to the senior center until it — and Firavich — clearly demonstrate more robust financial controls to ensure responsible use of taxpayer money.
Board president Franks told The Forum that the board opted not to bring in an auditor to track the funds the area agency said were not accounted for because it would have been expensive — at least $100,000. That figure is on the low end of what the senior center typically received annually in federal funding, which it has now not received for going on four years.
Stopka pointed to the unpreparedness noted in the September 2020 monitoring report as evidence that Firavich, who said she has been through 10 similar bid processes during her 14 years at the center, does not actually want funding that has strings attached, and would prefer to deal primarily with community donations instead — funding that comes without the same oversight.
This year, the senior center is set to receive $96,000 from the Nodaway County Senior Services tax, which is distributed each year to eligible organizations that apply for grants from that fund. The center had requested $85,000. The rest of the center’s funds come from other sources that also don’t require as stringent requirements, including donations from individuals and organizations — like the United Way, annually one of the center’s largest donors. Firavich currently serves as the vice president of the United Way of Nodaway County board.
“I think she sabotaged the RFP and the on-site visit, because … her board wants the contract, but she does not want it,” Stopka said. “Because … she’ll have to comply with our rules. And there’s lots of them. She will have to send in invoices, and we’ll be in there doing business, and I don’t think she wants that. The board wants a contract, she does not.
“Because, she knows how to do an RFP. She knows. But during the on-site visit, she was scrolling through her computer looking up stuff that should’ve been readily available because she had just submitted it a week before. ‘It was just here.’ She does not want our contract.”
Stopka said it’s Nodaway County seniors and donors to the senior center who are paying the price — literally — for what he said was the board’s refusal to provide proper oversight and push for the center to meet state standards.
Records provided by the senior center show that in fiscal year 2018, the first full year without a contract for meal services with the area agency, the number of in-home meals delivered dropped to 15,970 from 25,517 in 2016, and the internal review noted that the total number of meals served, including in-home and congregate, dropped by 12,000 from 2016 to 2018.
“And then, I blame the board,” Stopka said. “The board is the one that’s supposed to be responsible. I think they’re just hurt from this whole ordeal a couple years ago, that (they think) they’ve done nothing wrong, and they still just claim nothing happened. I just don’t see how we can work with, really, the current board or Amie without major changes.”
Board vice president Baumli said that although the center plans to keep submitting bids in the future, he doesn’t have high hopes that the center will be successful.
“I have resigned myself to the fact, some months past, with fellow board members — some of them are very opposite of myself — (that) what we’re dealing (with) is, is an effort in futility,” Baumli told The Forum. “We are not going to get funding from them.
“We’ve done everything they’ve asked. We addressed every issue.”