Reporters are pesky people who are known to ask pesky questions.
It’s obnoxious, but it’s a requirement of the job, and our mothers still love us.
Say a school district hires a new superintendent. We want to know that person’s experience and game plan. And, oh, by the way, how old are you, how much are you being paid, and how does your paycheck compare to your predecessor’s?
A former local superintendent liked to announce every time he visited Leader World Headquarters, “My salary as of today is (fill in the blank).” Obviously, he resented our perpetual questioning on a matter he considered personal. Too bad. Law requires tax-supported entities to tell all.
It’s murkier when it comes to financial details about private entities who spend money on the public’s behalf.
Like, for example, the Jefferson Foundation (formerly the Jefferson Memorial Community Foundation), which distributes grants funded by proceeds from the 2013 merger of the Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Crystal City with Mercy.
Reporter Tony Krausz wrote a retrospective of the foundation’s first five years for today’s paper, and it’s hard to exaggerate the organization’s positive impact on our community.
Its eight-member board invested the $154 million payout from the merger deal and has been doling out investment income to local nonprofits ever since, meanwhile adding approximately $7 million to the nest egg.
So far, about $40 million has been distributed in nearly 800 grants aimed at boosting residents’ health and well-being. Grants ranging from $1,000 to $3 million are given out in twice-annual distributions, or in the case of the largest grants, in three-year cycles.
The money has gone in so many beneficial directions, it’s hard to keep up, although the Leader tries. We’ve written at least 100 stories on people, programs and places boosted by the foundation.
The hungry have been fed, the grief-stricken have been counseled, people without vehicles have been transported, cavities have been filled, scholarships have been provided, and a myriad of health needs, physical and mental, have been met.
The funding has touched thousands of lives, and if there’s ever been a bigger or better blessing for Jefferson County, I don’t know of it.
But here we go, being pesky.
When Krausz asked for salary information on the foundation’s handful of employees, he was told disclosure is “against board policy.”
So, he went to the IRS, which requires private foundations to report salaries. Bingo, but the most recent information available is from the 2017 tax year.
Last week, I asked for the foundation’s bylaws and for the process under which current board members will one day be replaced.
“That is not something we share,” foundation executive vice president Missy Endres said about the bylaws. She said she would refer my questions about the board to Jeff Buck.
No call back.
Buck is the foundation’s CEO and president. He retired a couple of years ago and moved to Texas. In recent changes at the foundation, Endres, a charter foundation employee who had more than a decade of experience with United Way, was promoted and Buck came back to his old job, with plans to keep Texas as his home base.
The foundation provided all that information – good! – but not current salaries for Endres and Buck. Someday, the IRS will tell us.
As a private entity, the Jefferson Foundation has the legal right to put up the hand we’ve been talking to. But keep in mind that its existence, and the money it controls, had a public origin.
Back in 1953, local leaders who saw a desperate need for a local hospital started raising funds. They went to businesses, labor unions, service groups and individuals, asking people to buy shares in increments of $10. Purchasers gained votes toward selection of hospital board members.
The effort brought in $1 million in 1950 dollars, equivalent to about $10 million today. Combined with a federal grant of $350,000, the money allowed a hospital staffed with three doctors to open in 1957.
Many made those long-ago donations at personal sacrifice, so it is sweet justice that the rewards are raining down on their children and children’s children. Those forward-thinking individuals blessed their community with a thriving regional health center.
Is the Leader suspicious of the Jefferson Foundation? Nope. Its employees and board members are good people doing great things.
Dale Carroll of Imperial isn’t necessarily suspicious, either. Ironically, on the day I started work on this column, Carroll submitted a letter to the editor responding to Krausz’s story about the departure of foundation short-timer Juan Figueroa, who Buck is now replacing.
Carroll, a 77-year-old Vietnam War veteran who works 30 hours a week ($9.94 an hour) at the Veterans Canteen at Jefferson Barracks, questioned the size of those 2017 salaries for Endres ($106,000) and Buck ($187,680).
I called Carroll and found out he’s pesky, too. He wants to know what their pay is now.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for that information,” he said. “They need to be accountable.”
Back in 1953, banking executive Russell Leffingwell testified to Congress that foundations need to have “glass pockets,” dispelling mistrust by giving the public an open book.
“If they won’t provide information, it’s a red flag,” Carroll said. Many others will feel like him.
The foundation is designed to outlast all of us, including its current decision-makers.
The time is now to develop a culture of scrutiny, from the press and public, and openness, on the part of those who are writing all those checks for the community’s good.