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What happened to ‘Save the Harbor’ money? PDF Print E-mail
Written by BILL SCHANEN IV   
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 20:06

Officials say president of defunct nonprofit needs to account for donated funds; she says group provided education, returned balance to principle donor

    In early 2014, at about the same time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the Port Washington breakwater needed repairs costing millions of dollars it didn’t have and the city was talking about acquiring and repairing the lighthouse, a grass-roots group formed to, in its words, “save the Port lighthouse and breakwater.”
    The group, which registered with the state as a nonprofit organization under the name Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation Inc., held a well-attended organizational meeting, auctioned donated photographs, collected donations in “Save the Harbor” buckets in downtown stores and at city events and sold lighthouse necklaces and kites with a logo that featured a life ring around the lighthouse.
    Residents volunteered to help the cause. Even Boy Scouts chipped in by selling kites.
    But three years later, as the city continues to scrape up money for ongoing breakwater repairs and launches a fundraising effort to pay for lighthouse repairs, officials say they have no idea what happened to the more than $31,000 raised by the group but know that it didn’t benefit efforts to repair the breakwater or lighthouse.
    “We didn’t see any of those dollars,” Mayor Tom Mlada said. “We didn’t realize any benefit from this organization.
    “The people of this city are legitimately looking for accountability. There was money that went to this organization that isn’t coming back.”
    Mary Jo Joyce of West Bend, one of the founders and president of the now-defunct Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation, said Tuesday that most of the money the group raised was spent on “educational outreach” and to cover the expenses of the nonprofit organization.
    “The money was used to conduct educational outreach which resulted in awareness of the structural deficiencies of the breakwater and increased support for repairing it,” she said.
    Reacting to allegations of mismanage-ment or worse on social media, Joyce said, “I’m aware of the muckraking going on. It’s untrue. Nobody in the organization was paid. We’re not talking about a lot of money or malfeasance. We’re talking about dedicated volunteers who tried to make a difference.”
    When asked this week how the group’s money was spent, James Meyer of Port Washington, an organizer of the group who served as its vice president, said, “I’m not going to elaborate on that. I’m going to direct you to Mary Jo Joyce. She’s the one who is taking care of that. I walked away from the group because of other things I had going on.”
    According to the Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation’s 2014 financial statement filed with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, it raised $31,133 in charitable contributions and reported another $1,923 in revenue for a total of $33,056.
    The group reported spending $3,442 for the management of the organization and $10,874 for services it provided, leaving it with a balance of $18,296 at the end of 2014.
    It did not have to file a financial report in 2015 because it claimed less than $5,000 in contributions.
    Joyce said that the vast majority of the money the organization raised — $30,000 — was donated by the Sailing Association of Sheboygan (SEAS), and when the Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation dissolved in 2016, the balance of that donation — between $13,000 and $14,000 — was returned to SEAS. She said the foundation’s by-laws required that if it ceased to operate remaining fundraising proceeds be donated to an organization of “similar purpose.”
    According to its website, SEAS is a nonprofit organization “dedicated to creating affordable pathways for the community to safely enjoy boating on Lake Michigan” and provide “educational programming and access to boats while removing barriers to participation created by financial, physical or cognitive needs.”
    According to Leslie Kohler, chairwoman of the SEAS Board of Directors, SEAS donated $10,000 to the Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation on Feb. 13, 2014. Her father, Terry Kohler, donated $20,000, she said.
    On Dec. 20, 2016, SEAS received a check for $13,409 from the Safe Harbor Preservation Fund, Kohler said.
    In an email sent Tuesday, Kohler defended Joyce.
    “I do not believe that Mary Jo Joyce or the board of GLSH in any way conducted themselves without integrity and certainly did nothing that was illegal,” Kohler wrote. “It seems to me that all this hoopla on Facebook is merely a witch hunt (started by) somebody that must have spent $25 for a necklace and wonders where the money went.”
    City officials are among those who wonder where the money went and say Joyce still owes a full accounting for the money the Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation collected for the stated purpose of funding breakwater and lighthouse repairs.
    In November 2016, and again the following month, the city sent letters to Joyce requesting documents, noting that people who supported the group had been asking how the money it collected has been used to accomplish its mission “to contribute to improvements to the breakwater and lighthouse in Port Washington.”
    Among the documents requested were federal and state forms recognizing the group as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, IRS form 990, which requires nonprofit organizations to provide detailed accounting information, and a statement of funds available for lighthouse acquisition and improvements.
    Joyce did not provide the documents, officials said.
    “I received a short response from her, something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know what you’re looking for, but there’s nothing there,’” Mlada said.
    Joyce said Tuesday, “The city made demands it wasn’t in a position to make.”
    City Attorney Eric Eberhardt said Joyce’s unwillingness to provide the documents is cause for concern.
    “For me, the biggest concern I have is why wouldn’t you respond to a reasonable request for information?” he said. “That’s the elephant in the room.
    “This organization collected money from donors and is unwilling to account for that. The city has a lot of questions about how this was handled.”
    When asked if the city plans to take further action, Eberhardt said, “The city doesn’t wish to spend money on legal fees to chase money that apparently is not there anymore.”
    Jeff Ewig, who attended the foundation’s organizational meeting in 2014, donated a photo to its fundraising auction and put a donation bucket on the counter of his Port Washington store, Ewig Bros. Fish Co., said organizers made it clear the group’s goal was to raise money to pay for repairs to both the breakwater and lighthouse.    
    “That’s what I was led to believe, but it seems that changed somewhere along the line,” Ewig said. “That’s pretty crappy if you ask me. They raised a good amount of money that we could certainly use now.
    “It all seems pretty fishy to me.”
    Although the foundation’s fundraising materials described the effort as one that would benefit the breakwater and lighthouse, Joyce said this week that the organization was focused strictly on the breakwater.
    “The acquisition and preservation of the lighthouse was never our mission,” Joyce said.
    Not long after the foundation was created, two events — an announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers would allocate nearly $1 million for breakwater repairs and a decision by the city to hire a consultant to seek grants for the project — undercut the organization’s effectiveness and ultimately led to the decision to dissolve the Great Lakes Safe Harbor Preservation Foundation, Joyce said.
    “We didn’t think that people would donate once we knew the Army Corps had allocated money for the breakwater,” Joyce said. “We raised a small amount of money from our local efforts, and in the end, we weren’t successful in getting past startup and decided to close.”
    Mlada said the foundation could have had a meaningful impact on efforts to repair the lighthouse, noting that the city’s immediate priority is to raise $30,000 to replace the portholes in the pierhead light to make the structure weathertight.
    “Even if we received a portion of what the group raised, we would be a long way toward that goal,” he said.     

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