I have been very busy with my real job over the last six weeks.  This seemed to coincide with a period of calm devoid of institutional idiocy at the expense of the Jewish Community.  I was especially delighted to read the August 5 editorial from the Jewish News which pointedly took up issues I have been writing about for most of the summer.  From their article:

“Where did that money go?” he asked at the time. “The answer is, ‘It went out into the community.'”

It’s a disarming statement – you can’t argue with pumping money back into the community – but concrete examples of what was funded in lieu of balancing the budget would give the statement some substance – not to mention inspiring confidence in the federation at a time when its relevancy is being re-examined. The time for transparency is now.

Silver took federation town halls on the road last summer to the far corners of our Valley in an attempt to engage more community members in the federation’s decision-making process, and although tumbleweeds weren’t exactly blowing through the venues, the attendance didn’t set any records.

Clear answers might help. For instance, did operation and management costs of the Ina Levine Jewish Community Center divert resources that could have addressed the needs of the most vulnerable in our community? The federation circumspectly acknowledged the issue in its May 25 Jewish Community Update (“Solar energy, endowment key to association’s future,” Jewish News, June 3).

Leaders at the event, which drew fewer than 50 community members, said that campus costs had been a financial drag on its tenants, not to mention its federation landlord. They said that establishing an endowment to fund those costs was a job left undone when the campus was built and they were seeking to rectify that.

Federation leaders of the past may have had their hearts in the right place when they took on the debts that led to its financial issues. It’s just that whether your heart’s in the right place or not, bills will come due.

I was actually hoping there would be nothing to write about and that I could give this a rest, but hope is not a plan, and so when I opened the pages of the Jewish News this past week, I received a new gift that will keep giving: The saga of the East Valley JCC.

Here is what I know about this place: basically nothing.  I have never seen it and do not know where it is, and judging from their abysmal drop in services revenues over the last three years, I guess I am not alone in not knowing where it is.  So from what I can discern, this center of the East Valley Jewniverse was heavily supported by the Ron Barness Family.  Now, Mr. Barness, for whatever reason, is to being sued what Warren Buffet is to accumulating wealth, and now, apparently, a warrant has been issued for his arrest.  So, coincidentally, after the arrest warrant was publicized, the JCC of the East Valley removed Mr. Barness’ name from over the door and quit being the Barness Family East Valley JCC.  They are now the East Valley JCC.  So they have transitioned from a poorly run facility, named after a donor who is in obvious trouble, to just a poorly run facility.  As an aside, I think that whoever has the sign making concession for our Jewish service institutions must be making a killing in Phoenix with all the name changes that occur here.

So here is where the story gets more interesting, at least for me.  According to the Jewish News, the East Valley JCC’s President, a Mr. Steve Tepper, (Click here for article) would not give a reason for the name change, and when he was specifically asked whether or not the Barness Family paid their pledges, Mr. Tepper replied: “We do not release the financial records of the JCC or its donors.”  So, another high handed statement from a leader of a community institution, and a statement that is completely untrue.  Like all 501c3’s not attached to a house of worship, the East Valley JCC files an IRS 990 form that is available for inquiring minds that gives a pretty detailed look at their financial operations (download 2007, 2008, and 2009 filings here).

Maybe Mr. Tepper did not know how to say the following in response to the question about the Barness Family:  “For many years the Barness Family supported the JCC very generously.  However, in view of the recent and persistently pejorative publicity surrounding Mr. Barness’ business affairs, we felt that it was detrimental to the success of the East Valley JCC to continue to associate this center with the Barness name.” Instead, he gave a patently false answer about not disclosing financial information about the JCC to the public, probably hoping no one would look into his stewardship, and took the heavy handed approach that is the gold standard for answering questions about financial transparency for Jewish service institutions in the greater Phoenix Jewish Community.  So Mr. Tepper, how about a few questions?

  1. The revenues of your JCC have decreased almost 35% in the last three years. The center is doing much less business, but your salary went from $110,072.00 to $116,716.00.  How does that happen?  
  2. Were you given a bonus for running the place into a ditch?  Your salary is approaching 10% of all the money your JCC collects, if the trend continues,  by the time the place closes, you could be earning close to a quarter of a million dollars per year.  
That’s a lot of lipstick for a pig, especially in this heat.