Thursday, June 13, 2024

NHC forgoes reappointing 2 standing endowment members for former commissioners

NHC commissioners were split on their vote for two appointments to the New Hanover Community Endowment board.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two new members will serve on a board overseeing millions of dollars in grant money, despite opposition.

READ MORE: 110 nonprofits receive $9M in first tranche of NHC Endowment funds

Former New Hanover County commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White were appointed to the New Hanover Community Endowment Board on Monday in a 3-2 vote by commissioners. On Aug. 31, commissioners received a letter from endowment chair Bill Cameron, asking them to consider reappointing its current members Hannah Dawson Gage and Virginia Adams. 

Three years ago, Kusek, White, former commissioner chair Julia Olson-Boseman and current commissioner Jonathan Barfield were the four to vote in favor of selling New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant and forming the $1.25 billion endowment. 

Its board has 13 members, with two expiring Sept. 30. The commissioners appoint five members, six are voted in by Novant Health and two are appointed by the endowment board.

Kusek and White were barred from applying to the endowment for two years, based on a 2020 decision by commissioners, which Kusek opposed. Commissioner Rob Zapple told Port City Daily he pushed for a five-year hiatus for any appointees after leaving office but was shot down.

White’s and Kusek’s applications list each other as references.

Zapple and Barfield dissented on the vote for the former commissioners. Zapple moved to table the decision to December to align with Novant’s appointment timeline. He added the postponement would give the board time to answer the question: “What have they done?”

“My main concern is I didn’t feel the current board, who has been working for three years and building the endowment from scratch, has been given the fair chance to show what it is they have been doing,” Zapple told Port City Daily on a call Tuesday.

The board is only allowed to allocate interest earned from the billion-dollar account, and last year’s financial market limited the amount of money available. This year there should be roughly double to dole out, now that interest rates have come up, Zapple said.

“I really want to give them a chance to roll that out and see what it looks like,” he added.

The New Hanover Community Endowment is managed by worldwide investment firm Black Rock. In May, commissioners announced an additional $75 million of escrow funds to be split between the New Hanover Community Endowment and the hospital’s foundation, Novant’s philanthropic arm for community initiatives.

Commissioner Dane Scalise opposed postponing the appointment of New Hanover County Endowment board members and said it would be inconsistent to change the timeline after switching it last year. He said the commissioners moved to appoint endowment members from December to October at the Oct. 17, 2022 meeting, which neither Barfield nor Zapple said they recalled. 

According to the meeting video, commissioners voted to reappoint Spence Broadhurst and Shannon Winslow last year. Former commissioner Deb Hayes, who was participating remotely, said after the fact she wanted to table the vote but did not respond in time to do so.

“Furthermore, I would say it’s well past time for us to provide the endowment folks with assurance whomever we are going to move to be on the board they’re going to know today,” Scalise said at Monday’s meeting.

He told Port City Daily on Tuesday he voted to appoint White and Kusek to ensure the endowment’s strategic plan aligns with the county’s.

“We are eager for the Endowment to do the large-scale, transformational work that was promised to the people of New Hanover County,” he wrote in a statement to PCD. “These appointees are uniquely qualified and ready to help the Endowment do just that.”

Vice chair LeAnn Pierce was opposed to tabling the vote for a later date as well.

“I don’t think it’s fair to advertise [on the agenda] we’re going to make appointments, then not do it,” she said.

Pierce told PCD on Tuesday that she was representing residents who reached out to her asking for change from the endowment. Personally, she would like to see the funds used more for healthcare gaps, including hearing aids, insurance, dental care, and home aid to seniors.

“I think we need creative, out-of-the box kind of thinking for our citizens,” she said. “Three years is a long time and I think those people have done a lot of work, but to say we need another three years is a lot.”

Zapple feared appointing former commissioners would politicize a board intended to act in the best interest of the community.

“We have two former commissioners stepping into something we all created,” he told Port City Daily. “I don’t think it sends a very good message to the public in general.”

Barfield was in favor of reappointing the endowment’s two standing members, Gage and Adams.

“For me, whether it’s this committee or any other board, it’s always been my practice to reappoint individuals when eligible,” Barfield said at the meeting. “When we start willy nilly removing folks, I think it sends the wrong message to those who may want to volunteer. They think maybe I shouldn’t volunteer my time only to not be appreciated, so to speak.”

Gage and Adams were both appointed as founding members of the board in October 2020.

Barfield, who said in his 15-plus years he has always reappointed an eligible individual to any board, was in favor of retaining the only diverse member, Adams, appointed by commissioners.

“The conversation right now would be to remove the one person of color that we put there,” he said. “My question to commissioners is: What message are we sending to New Hanover County as a whole when we remove any diversity of our appointments at all?”

Attorney General Josh Stein, reviewing the hospital transaction in 2020, required the endowment to have someone from the African-American and Hispanic communities serving.

Novant appointed Cedric Dickerson in December 2020, who has been reappointed until December 2025.

The endowment appointed Khadijia Tribié Reid in February 2021 and her term expires December 2024. 

“I would like for my board to check itself,” Barfield said. “Understand, if you make this move I think you’re about to make, you’re sending the wrong message to the 230-plus thousand citizens in this community and to folks who look like me in particular.”

Pierce told PCD she does not look at race or gender when choosing board appointees.

“It’s not about black, white, male, female, Republican, Democrat,” she said.

The New Hanover Community Endowment Board Chair Bill Cameron, appointed to his position in January following Spence Broadhurst, sent a letter to commissioners recommending Gage and Adams serve another term.

Still, commissioner chair Bill Rivenbark was in favor of bringing in new faces.

“We can’t keep reappointing the same people for the rest of our life,” he said. “We need some fresh people.”

Realtor James (David) Branton, retired teacher Rebecca Clark, retired director of the Harrelson Center Victoria Dull, Coastal Horizons mental health therapist Jennifer Keeling, retired American Heart Association director Donna Shiro, and retired professional Michael Werner applied for a spot on the endowment board.

Board members serve three-year terms with the chance to retain the position up to a maximum of three consecutive terms. Cameron told Port City Daily the endowment board has “consistently supported reappointment for one additional term.”

Gage was appointed as vice chair, a position she served until January 2023; currently, she is the board secretary. Gage also chaired the governance committee and co-chaired the grants committee.

Adams served as vice chair of the governance committee and the letter stated her social and health equity experience has “been invaluable” in the development of a healthcare workforce pathway.

The endowment board voted Aug. 17 to recommend reappointment of Gage and Adams, according to the letter. “The purpose of continuity is critical as we enter the first grant cycle tied to our strategic plan,” it stated.

The endowment launched its 2023-2025 strategic plan in March outlining measurable objectives, goals and desired impact the endowment envisions for the county in terms of social and health equity, education, community safety, and community development.

Cameron’s letter further states Gage and Adams “have proven to be outstanding and committed board members who have worked to build the operational, governance, and investment structures needed for the endowment to be managed in perpetuity. Having a stable board is instrumental to our long-term success.”

Cameron iterated the sentiment to Port City Daily and also said the board looks forward to working with White and Kusek as it continues to improve the health, education, safety and economics of the community. 

Last year, during its first round of grant disbursements, the endowment received 291 applications and doled out $9.1 million to 110 agencies in the county.

The New Hanover County Department of Social Services applied for a $100,000 grant for its adult protective services program and was awarded the money. However, Coudriet asked for the application to be withdrawn, stating the money could be better used for area nonprofits.

READ MORE: NHC social services says it needs $100K but county rejected endowment grant

This year’s cycle opened Sept. 1 and closes Friday. The submissions will be evaluated through November, with announcement of awarded grants in early December. Award amounts are limited again this year for one-year, nonrenewable responsive grants to $250,000 per applicant, or 50% of an organization’s operating budget (last year it was 25%), whichever is less.

Strategic funding is also on the table, which considers multi-year requests and allows for organizations to apply for more than $250,000 in the following categories: healthcare workforce, early childhood education, affordable housing, youth crime prevention, K-12 development and health access.

Coudriet has urged county departments to not apply for any grant funding, writing in a message to the strategic management council team the endowment should not be a replacement for county responsibilities.

“The endowment is intended to help our community do things it otherwise cannot do on its own,” Coudriet wrote. “The county will not be initiating specific asks of the endowment in the upcoming grant cycle.” 

He further wrote the county’s priorities for grant awards include food insecurity, housing affordability and health care provider capacity.

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