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Published: 12/13/2009

Y members bitter over drive's failure

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
South Y member Melody Williams feels that YMCA leaders set up the neighborhood to fail in its effort to save the branch. South Y member Melody Williams feels that YMCA leaders set up the neighborhood to fail in its effort to save the branch.
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Suter Suter
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Disappointment mixed with resentment and anger yesterday for several longtime members of the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo as their membership drive to save the South Toledo Y from closing ended significantly short of its goal.

In September, YMCA officials set a goal of 376 new South Y memberships, but they said the equivalent of only 118 memberships were sold by late yesterday afternoon, the campaign's deadline.

The Y's Board of Trustees had voted to close the building if the membership drive failed. YMCA officials are to share the results of the campaign and plans for the South Toledo branch on Woodsdale Park Drive during a news conference tomorrow morning.

The membership drive concluded at 4 p.m. yesterday, just as Michael and Robin Kuhn of Woodbine Drive finished their workouts and were walking to their car in the parking lot. They have been Y members for 12 years, but the Kuhns said they were unsure whether to renew their family's membership for themselves and their four young children if the South Y closes.

Mrs. Kuhn criticized the 11th-hour nature of the membership drive, and said that if YMCA leaders do close the building, they'll betray not only the branch's members but an entire community.

"If we would have known a few years ago, we could have done something to prevent this. Three months and that many memberships just isn't realistic," Mrs. Kuhn said. "They care more about Perrysburg than they do South Toledo, and that's what's sad."

Melody Williams, another longtime member, was also outside as the South Y locked its doors for the weekend. She grew emotional recalling how her two daughters, now adults, learned to swim in the building's pool and played countless hours of basketball in the gym.

She said other south-end families will miss those opportunities her children had.

"Not just economically are we losing jobs, but now we're losing staples of our community," said Ms. Williams, who feels YMCA leaders set up the neighborhood to fail knowing the difficulty of selling so many memberships for an older and smaller facility that has been stripped of programs.

The South Y opened in 1954 and is the oldest operating YMCA in Toledo.

"I think they got away with shoving it on us. Now they can say, 'You failed,' instead of, 'We failed,'•" Ms. Williams said.

YMCA officials yesterday disputed Ms. Williams' contention, and said they were as disappointed as members and neighbors to see the campaign fall short.

"We share their disappointment," said Todd Tibbits, the Y's senior vice president of operations. "We put a good-faith, 100-percent effort behind this campaign."

The YMCA promoted the South Y membership drive with signs, mailings, and free television ads on Buckeye CableSystem and newspaper ads in The Blade.

Buckeye CableSystem is owned by Block Communications Inc., which also owns The Blade.

"The ads we ran for them were all pro bono," said Joseph H. Zerbey IV, president and general manager of The Blade. "We did that to try to help them in the drive for the South Y."

Board member Judd Johnson said the Y met regularly with a neighborhood group and worked with it in an attempt to save the branch. He also noted how the YMCA scrapped its previous late August closing date for the South Y at the behest of the community, and more recently lowered the membership drive's goal from 500.

"It is ludicrous to think that an organization like the YMCA would put out an unreasonably tough goal to achieve as some kind of a false hope," Mr. Johnson said. "We wanted this to succeed. We really believe that it was achievable."

But in the opinion of Cooper Suter, an early and outspoken member of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens and Y Members, YMCA leaders have planned the South Y's closure for years by allowing it to gradually deteriorate to the point where they can use the building's age and inadequate membership base as justification.

"You had something that worked there. They let it languish and they let it get broken, and they moved on," Mr. Suter said yesterday.

Mr. Suter also accused the nonprofit of enriching its own finances and executive salaries at the expense of its public service commitment.

For example, the annual base salary of CEO Robert Alexander is $270,357, making him the highest-paid president and CEO of a YMCA system in Ohio and the highest-paid head of a social service agency in Toledo.

"You might be able to rationalize those salaries on a national basis, but not in Toledo with this economy and this recession and with these results," Mr. Suter said. "When it's time to make cuts, they're very comfortable coming to working-class families and saying, 'You've got to help us.' It's not, 'What can we do for you?'•"

Indeed, Ms. Williams was outraged that the Y decided to close a building while still paying salaries as high as that of Mr. Alexander.

After months of criticism of his management, the South Y closure decision, and the $600,000 in salaries paid to him, his daughter, his wife, and daughter-in-law, Mr. Alexander recently announced that he would retire next year.

"They're willing to sacrifice something that's beneficial to children and families. But anything that comes out of their own pocket, they're not willing to cut," she said.

Some of those salaries could be due for a haircut next year. Mr. Tibbits told The Blade yesterday that a draft version of the YMCA's 2010 budget calls for $1.2 million in salary cuts.

He said it was premature to discuss how those cuts would affect individuals, but said, "it's all levels, including top executives."

State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) and several individuals of the citizens coalition met late yesterday morning with a YMCA board member to discuss the future of the South Toledo branch. Ms. Fedor has been a strong supporter of keeping the building open.

No new developments resulted from the talks, although the board member did say that trustees were open to "13th-hour" offers to save the branch, according to people familiar with the situation.

Despite months of appeals by Y members, neighbors, and Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, the YMCA board has refused to make public its records documenting Y executives' credit-card use, travel expenses, and "conferences, conventions, and meetings."

Mr. Suter said he didn't personally support the membership drive because he couldn't assure people that their dollars would be well-spent. He said he regrets that the coalition mulled over but didn't ask Lucas County Commissioners to establish an oversight task force to examine the YMCA's spending.

"People never got to the point where they would trust the Y with their money. Is it going for services or is it going to expense accounts? There were people who were willing to step up with donations and endowments but stayed on the sidelines," Mr. Suter said.

The Ohio attorney general's office opened an investigation into the YMCA this fall following reports of possible mismanagement.

YMCA officials said state officials have since visited their corporate office twice, reviewing more than 15,000 documents.

"We have every reason to believe that the attorney general will find there has been no mismanagement, no improper spending, no junkets," said Mr. Johnson, a board member. "They told us personally that they feel this is one of the finest-run and organized organizations that they've been involved in an investigation with."

South Y coalition members had yet to reach consensus yesterday on their next step, or whether they would try again for a county-led task force.

One South Y member, Fred Ansted of Gilbert Road, said that if the YMCA began thinking more like a community organization and less like a corporation, that would be a decent legacy of the coalition's fight.

"We owe it to the rest of the Y members in the rest of the community to make sure that they're taken care of," Mr. Ansted said, standing outside the South Y's locked doors late yesterday afternoon, "to make sure that they're not treated like this."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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