Watchdog

Human Rights Commission behind in state retirement payments

The financially struggling Lexington Human Rights Commission missed monthly payments to the Kentucky Retirement Systems in June, July and December of 2009, leaving its five employees in a position to miss some pension benefits if the amount isn't paid.

The commission owes the retirement system nearly $12,000. It provided information Wednesday night showing that it did not make payments of $4,148 each in June and July and had not paid $3,601 that it owed for December.

KRS executive director Robert M. Burnside said that groups sometimes get behind in payments, but it was "very unusual" for them to get as far behind as the commission.

"We are concerned about any agency that doesn't pay, particularly if its habitual," said Burnside. The commission's five employees—including former executive director William Wharton, who was fired in December— would not receive credit for any months that the agency does not make payments, he said.

Wharton was fired after he was "repeatedly" asked for information about the commission's finances but did not give it to the board, according to Rabbi Marc Kline, the former board chairman.

However, board member Chris Ford said Thursday that Wharton, who Ford supports, was terminated without cause.

The commission released a statement Thursday pledging to cooperate with a city audit of the group recommended last week by Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry.

The city is insisting on tighter financial controls, in part, because of past due payments to the retirement system, according to City Finance Director Linda Rumpke.

The commission investigates complaints of discrimination, monitors hate and bias incidents, and provides educational outreach, using some city and federal money. On Wednesday night, board members told Newberry that they could not make payroll or pay more than $71,000 in bills to vendors.

City officials have said that before the city will release monthly payments to the commission, including the $7,000 needed immediately for payroll, the commission board will have to show city officials how the money will be spent.

The commission's budget for the 2009 fiscal year was $440,000, according to acting director Ray Sexton. The current operating deficit is about $50,000.

The commission's new treasurer Beth Hartmann said in a report to the board Wednesday that the group "has been operating at loss for some time now."

The commission is waiting for federal funds to increase cash flow, Hartmann said, "but only a significant decrease in expenses or significant increase in income will create a sustainable situation."

In addition to the payments to the retirement system, the health insurance premiums the commission pays to participate in the city's insurance plan are in arrears by more than $21,000.

The money for insurance was used to pay general operating expenses. The commission is negotiating a repayment plan with the city.

The commission also owes the city a total of $2,100 in rent, which it has not paid since June.

"It is our hope the LFUCG audit findings will allow (us)...to fully recognize our existing operational strengths and to clearly identify areas of needed financial improvement," the commission's statement said. "We remain steadfastly committed to guiding this organization forward, and to fostering fairness and equal opportunity throughout Lexington — Fayette County communities."

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