Councilor sees waste in giving cars away – The Union Leader

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2016


MANCHESTER – Good News Garage is no stranger to controversy.

The idea that state social service agencies would pay a charity such as Good News to refurbish donated cars and hand them out to people on welfare just doesn’t sit well with a good segment of the population.

Massachusetts welfare officials had to cut ties with the organization in 2009 amid a wave of criticism and public pressure driven by conservative voices including radio talk-show host Howie Carr, the Boston Herald and then-state Sen. Scott Brown.

But the same program has also been widely acclaimed. The charity and its beneficiaries have been featured in People Magazine, Reader’s Digest, “The Today Show” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

The New Hampshire Union Leader in 2014 profiled the organization with the headline: “Good News Garage offers hope to those in need.”

Votes to approve contracts with the organization over the past 10 years reflect that divided point of view, usually squeaking by with 3-2 margins on the state’s five-member Executive Council.

Republican Councilor David Wheeler of Milford is now hoping he can leverage a three-member GOP majority to cut Granite State ties with Good News once and for all.

He says the program is top-heavy with administrative expense, and the dollars could be put to better use in a partnership with the New Hampshire Automobile Dealer’s Association.

Hassan favors program

Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supports the program, says the money spent to help welfare recipients obtain the transportation they need to get and keep a job saves the state many times over in social service costs.

“I am concerned we have federal money that could be used to improve a program to help more people get off (welfare), and I’m hoping we can proceed with that,” she said at the Executive Council breakfast on July 13, as she and Wheeler debated the proposition.

“When we take a single-parent household with two kids off TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), we save $18,000 a year for the state,” she said. “Not to mention the difference it makes in the lives of the people we are talking about.”

Hassan said she was not opposed to exploring options with New Hampshire auto dealers, but said there was no way those discussions could lead to a replacement program in the immediate future.

“I don’t see the urgency,” said Wheeler. “Good News is still funded at the existing level, and there is enough money in the approved budget for up to 100 cars.”

Wheeler prevailed and the proposal was tabled, as it has been every council meeting since May 18.

Latest debate

The latest debate over Good News was triggered when the Department of Health and Human Services asked the council in May to OK an additional $250,000 on top of the $500,000 already approved for 2017, which would increase the car giveaway from 100 to 155 cars.

“Reliable transportation is necessary for these individuals, many of whom live in areas without public transportation or have no means to purchase a vehicle to successfully seek, obtain and maintain employment as they transition from welfare to work,” according to Terry Smith, director of the Division of Family Assistance.

Bob Buckley, operations director of Good News Garage, says the state approached him about the additional funding, not the other way around.

“They called us,” he said from his small office at 340 Granite St., where Good News occupies the third floor. “They had some additional federal transportation money that was available to them, and we were more than happy to oblige.”

Buckley said he extended an invitation through DHHS officials for any member of the Executive Council to speak with him directly and visit the Good News operation.

“They can see first-hand the direct results, maybe meet a client and spend some time in a delivery. It’s very emotional,” said Buckley. “These are young parents who for the first time in their lives have independence, have transportation, have employment and can be purged off the welfare rolls and onto the tax rolls.”

Question of cost

The charity’s own financial statements reveal that the average cost per car from donation to delivery adds up to about $5,000, with an average of $2,300 going to repairs.

“If the average repair cost is $2,300 of the $5,000 per car, that means the overhead is 50 percent,” says Wheeler. “That’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”

In the last fiscal year, the organization delivered 100 cars in New Hampshire and 66 in Massachusetts, where it still maintains a small contract with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.

Wheeler says a full-time staff of six at Good News to process 166 donated cars adds up to 28 cars a year per staff member, or roughly one every two weeks.

“I would disagree with that statement,” says Buckley. “Our average cost is $2,300 for the work on the car itself, but there are many other aspects to it. We have people on the phones doing intake orders; we’re chasing donors; picking up cars; paying towing costs … all that stuff comes into play.”

Not to mention the rent and overhead at the Granite Street building and what Buckley called the “heavy client interaction” with the recipients and their caseworkers – something he said the auto dealers would be unlikely to take on.
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“God bless the car dealers if they can do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of follow-up. It’s not just signing the papers in a showroom.”

Moving ahead

Good News is moving ahead with acquiring the additional 55 cars. If New Hampshire ultimately doesn’t come up with the money, they’ll just go elsewhere.

“We still plan to go out and find those 55 cars,” said Buckley. “We’ve already had some conversations in Massachusetts and if the vote (on the Executive Council) goes south, we have more opportunity to place cars down there. Either way, we’re not going anywhere. It’s not going to hurts us; it’s going to create a bigger challenge for us.”

When the current 4-year contract worth a total of $1.8 million expires at the end of June 2017, that challenge could become more substantial, depending on the makeup of the Executive Council at the time.

Failure to approve an additional $250,000 is one thing; failure to approve any contract at all could be fatal for the New Hampshire chapter of an organization whose motto is “Donate a car … Change a life”

dsolomon@unionleader.com
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