New Lawrence Community Shelter board discusses financial straits, delays recognizing staff union

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The Lawrence Community Shelter’s day-to-day budget could be in the red by the end of the year, even before added expenses to support winter shelter, the newly appointed board of directors learned Thursday.

The new board met for the first time Thursday evening, a meeting that was announced just hours prior to its start time. They discussed the shelter’s continuing financial struggles and the staff’s plans to unionize, among other organizational items.

The board of directors now includes Elizabeth Keever, Chuck Magerl and Shannon Oury, appointed by Mayor Lisa Larsen; Christina Gentry and John Krehbiel, appointed by the Douglas County Commission; and Rebekah Gaston and Charlie Bryan, who were shelter board members before the move to a shared governance model. Magerl, whose appointment was opposed by a Lawrence city commissioner because of an email he had sent that the commissioner described as “dehumanizing” toward people experiencing homelessness, did not appear to be present in person or via Zoom Thursday.

The shelter has faced challenges over the past several years with turnover in leadership and staffing, among other things. It has now moved to a model of shared governance with the City of Lawrence and Douglas County, but the instability has contributed to LCS’ financial struggles, Interim Executive Director Melanie Valdez told the board Thursday.

The shelter’s projected sources of funding broke down as follows, Valdez said: 36% from the City of Lawrence; 23% from Douglas County; 25% from federal funding; 12% from private donations; and 4% from grants.

“Because of the history of instability, for us to obtain foundation funding or other things is very difficult, and I have applied to several things but without that demonstration of stability, it is hard to get funding,” Valdez said. “So as we move forward and develop new programs and work on gaining that strength, that strong foundation that they’re looking for, I’m really hoping that we will be able to get those numbers up.”

But projections for the shelter’s operational budget that Valdez provided showed that by Dec. 30, the shelter’s expenses will exceed its projected funding. That is despite the city recently providing an additional $150,000 to help bridge the gap.

“We are running right up to the end of the year, but as most of you know, there is anticipated changes in our operations, and we are in some capacity going to support winter shelter,” Valdez said. “So this does not include any of those expenses.”

Valdez also said there will be another low point around the middle of December when the operational fund is expected to fall below $15,000, which she said is “pretty uncomfortable” when the monthly budget is between $145,000 and $160,000.

She said that as people have left employment at the shelter, she knew she could not afford to replace them because the shelter wouldn’t make it through the year. The burden has been shifted to her and one other person to perform all financial, operational and human resources-type tasks, she said.

“What I would ask is that we need to identify ways to fill those open positions so that I can be successful and the other administrators can be successful, because it really adds to the stability at this point,” Valdez said. “We’ve gone too far the other direction.”


Staff union

Shelter employees announced earlier this month their intent to unionize with Communication Workers of America – Local 6400, the union that also represents the classified workers of Lawrence Public Schools, among other employee groups.

When unions form, employers can choose to recognize the workers’ rights to bargain collectively. It makes the process faster and simpler if employers do recognize the union. It’s “just sort of a showing of good faith that you understand the intent of your employees to unionize,” Hannah Allison-Natale, president of CWA Local 6400, told the board.

The staff members gave the board a letter to consider signing to indicate they would voluntarily recognize the union. Bryan said the previous board of directors had considered approving the letter, but the motion had failed with three votes in favor, one opposed and two abstentions.

Lawrence Community Shelter Board of Directors President Charlie Bryan (left), board member Elizabeth Keever and Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of the shelter, during the first meeting of the new LCS board, Oct. 26, 2023 at the Lawrence Public Library. (Screenshot)

The board on Thursday held off on recognition because of some concerns about the process and timeline. Allison-Natale had been unable to stay on the call for the whole meeting because of a prior engagement.

Oury said she was unsure what it would mean if the board did agree to voluntarily recognize the union, and if that would, for instance, set into motion a quick timeline to get through contract negotiations.

“I just felt like — when I got this letter today, and the agreement — I don’t know that I have enough information,” Oury said. “I’m not necessarily opposed to it. I don’t know what the ramifications are.”

Bryan said that as he understood it, it really just saves the union a bit of work if the board voluntarily recognizes them. He said they don’t have a way to stop the process, and the voluntary recognition was just a shortcut for the staff members.

“When I think about our our list of priorities — we will have a negative bank account in a month and a half,” Keever said.

“And 22° (weather) by next Wednesday,” Oury added.

They voted to have the new executive committee (see below) meet with Allison-Natale to discuss it further before the next board meeting.

In other business:

Members voted to name Bryan president; Oury as vice president; Gaston as treasurer; and Gentry as secretary. They formed an executive committee that will include the president, VP and treasurer.

Lawrence Community Shelter Board of Directors members John Krehbiel (left) and Christina Gentry, and Melanie Valdez, interim executive director of the shelter during the first meeting of the new LCS board, Oct. 26, 2023 at the Lawrence Public Library. (Screenshot)

They did not settle on the exact makeup of an advisory board but said they wanted it to include shelter employees and guests.

“There seems to be some energy and wanting to be involved in the leadership and structure,” Gentry said of the staff members. Valdez agreed and said that “definitely, I want them to be involved.”

The board had a session on the Kansas Open Meetings Act and Kansas Open Records Act with Lawrence-based attorney Max Kautsch. The shelter is now subject to KOMA and KORA, though Kautsch clarified that shelter guests still maintain the right to privacy.

Board members settled on Nov. 30 for their next meeting.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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