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Charity for homeless unknowingly paid for CEO's taxis

Largo Mayor Pat Gerard had been approving expenses for a Pinellas nonprofit for six months before she noticed the unusual check.

The travel reimbursement check she was about to sign on behalf of the Homeless Leadership Board, of which she is vice chair, would have paid the organization's CEO Sarah Snyder for a taxi ride from her Seminole home to the group's Pinellas Park office. It was one of many checks like it that various board members have approved since 2011, when eye surgery left Snyder, 69, unable to drive.

In the intervening two years, that same 7-mile trip — plus dozens of rides to work meetings, lunch appointments and other destinations — have cost the organization almost $5,000.

Snyder said the payments were approved in 2011 by a previous board chairman, but current members of the Homeless Leadership Board said they had no idea they were paying the CEO's cab fares.

"It looks to me that at the beginning people said, 'Yeah, okay, take a cab where you need to go and we'll pay for it.' And then it turned into a normal thing," Gerard said. "It's added up to quite a bit of money and it's inappropriate and we're going to fix it."

A list of her trips that Snyder gave the board shows that she's been reimbursed for taxi rides to meetings with county and city officials, trips to supply stores like Staples, and rides from her doctor's office to work events. Some of the trip descriptions are vague, such as a $57 taxi ride from her home to a meeting that is labeled "Office for meeting." She was last reimbursed in April.

The board is expected to discuss Snyder's taxi bills at its July 1 meeting, where it will likely debate whether she should return the money or have it deducted from future pay.

Regardless of what they decide, several board members said they want the payments to stop.

"From the world I've always come from, you apply for a job, you get the job, and one of the responsibilities of having it is showing up, and that's usually your responsibility as an employee," said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long.

"So while I understand the sensitivity to accommodating Sarah because of her health issues … there also has to be some accountability to the public dollars."

The reimbursements should not have come as a shock, Synder said.

The Homeless Leadership Board is the result of a 2012 merger between the Homeless Leadership Network and the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. Snyder said former PCCH president Duggan Cooley approved monthly travel reimbursements of $150 for her and $130 for an assistant.

"I thought people were pretty well aware of it, but obviously they weren't," she said.

In a phone conversation, Cooley, who is now president of the United Way of Pasco, said that he couldn't remember approving the travel reimbursements.

"If Sarah is saying it, I don't doubt the authenticity of that," he said. "That was two years ago and I'm not really engaged with the HLB anymore."

Travel records show that Snyder received the monthly $150 reimbursement during the few months she could drive. But over the last two years she has had seven surgeries to repair a detached retina and relied on taxis for most of that time.

The trip from her home to the organization's office would take about an hour by bus, but her commute by taxi was about 15 minutes. Each ride cost from $20 to $25 dollars, charges consistent with local taxi companies' rates. Most months the total bill exceeded her $150 allotment.

Now that she has recovered from the latest surgery, Snyder said she should soon be able to drive herself to work and meetings.

The Homeless Leadership Board has a budget of $311,000, almost all of which comes from federal grant money and public funding from local governments. About $13,000 is from private contributions.

What remains after Snyder's $65,000 salary, $55,000 for another full-time employee and the salary of a part-time office manager is supposed to go to aid groups that provide food and shelter for the poor or to bus passes and other purchases that would directly benefit the homeless.

The organization's full board meets once a month and supervision of its employees is minimal, Gerard said.

"We're feeling a bit abashed," she said. "It calls into question how much attention (the board's) been paying."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Charity for homeless unknowingly paid for CEO's taxis 06/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 12:29am]
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