Embattled SHAL executive director resigns

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

Literally one week before John Miller, executive director of the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League, was scheduled to appear before the Key West City Commission to answer accusations of mismanagement made about his supervision of the local homeless shelter, Miller resigned.

Elicia Pintabona, deputy executive director, was named by the SHAL board of directors to replace Miller on an interim basis. The appointment was made at the Jan. 10 SHAL board meeting, where Miller submitted his resignation.

Both Pintabona and newly-elected SHAL board Chairman Rick Casey insisted that Miller did not resign in order to avoid being called on the carpet by city commissioners. The SHAL board did not ask for Miller’s resignation either, they both said.

“Oh, no,” said Casey when asked if Miller had been fired. “He has an opportunity somewhere in Georgia.”

“Not that I am aware of,” Pintabona said when asked the same question. “It was something that John [Miller] decided.”

Miller has been under fire since September 19, when a letter was sent to Key West City Manager Jim Scholl and city Commissioner Sam Kaufman by Mike Tolbert, the former director of the Keys Overnight Homeless Shelter (KOTS), who was fired in September for reopening the Stock Island shelter after Hurricane Irma without Miller’s approval. In the letter, Tolbert accused Miller of multiple issues including mismanaging money allocated to purchase bus tickets for homeless residents to leave the island, unsanitary food preparation areas and unhealthy living conditions for residents.

Although city commissioners voted not to formally investigate Tolbert’s charges, they did tell Scholl to look into the accusations as well as SHAL’s financial management of KOTS. An audit of the KOTS financial operation has been completed, Scholl said, and the results will be discussed at the Jan. 17 commission meeting, where Miller was scheduled to appear. With his resignation, Casey and Pintabona will make their presentation and answer questions.

SHAL is a local non-profit dedicated to helping homeless men and women find permanent housing. It has contracted with the city to operate KOTS since 2012.

Miller came under fire before Tolbert’s letter. In October 2016, Miller and the SHAL board offered to pay to build a new homeless shelter – required because the current KOTS facility has to relocate – in return for a long-term contract to continue managing KOTS. Under the initial proposal, Miller proposed that the city would pay SHAL $54,000 a month to cover its costs, up from the $44,000 a month the city currently pays to the non-profit to manage the facility.

But SHAL struggled for months to put together a design for the new homeless shelter. When the proposed deal was submitted to city officials in April, construction costs came in approximately $300,000 higher than Miller’s original $92,000 estimate. And the monthly fee proposal rose to $68,000. In addition, the proposal required the city to co-sign a $1.1 million bank loan to SHAL to build the new shelter.

The loan requirement was a deal breaker, Scholl said in April. Under city regulations, it cannot provide loan collateral for an outside agency without a voter referendum and other required legal approvals. As a result of the deal falling through, it put the responsibility for building a new shelter back in the city’s court, something it had hoped to avoid and is still trying to find a solution for.

With Miller gone, both Casey and Pintabona said their immediate goal is to repair soured relationships, not only with city officials but with its program donors. Pintabona, who started at SHAL in 2013 as a case manager, working her way up through the organization to serve as outreach director in 2015, then named deputy executive director last September, said her short-term goal is “to foster and repair any relationships within the community” and quell any concerns.

Casey said that the Monroe County Homeless Continuum of Care, the county’s lead agency for the coordination and planning of homeless services in the Florida Keys, is one organization where there have been some difficulties.

“I want to use this opportunity [Miller’s resignation] to rebuild some relationships that may have been strained,” Casey said. “We’re just looking for a new beginning.”

Kaufman, a long-time critic of SHAL’s management of KOTS, said it was “100 percent good for [Miller] to go.”

“This has been a struggle for the city for at least two years,” he said. “The City should know that taxpayer dollars are not being mismanaged and why hundreds of people have been banned from the shelter and how this policy was put in place. The operator has not been able to respond to these concerns in the past almost four months since their former shelter director made these allegations.”