Uproar pushes nonprofit to ask for its bonuses back

FRESNO — In a bid to quell rising public anger, a Fresno nonprofit that serves the disabled Thursday told 350 employees to return $500,000 in taxpayer-funded bonuses.

Directors of the Central Valley Regional Center on June 20 decided to distribute a budget surplus to workers. The bonuses, based on salary and seniority, averaged $1,400.

The payouts were an effort to compensate for possible furloughs and layoffs, and for an anticipated increase in health care premiums for employees in 2010, the directors said.

But the move drew criticism Tuesday from a top lawmaker and advocates for the disabled because they came as social service agencies face deep budget cuts. Although the agency said services did not suffer because of bonuses, many critics said the money should have been spent on disabled people instead.

On Thursday, directors issued a statement announcing that the bonuses had been rescinded.

The agency receives funds from the state to provide services for children and adults with developmental disabilities. This year, it helped about 14,700 people in areas reaching into Merced County.

Workers willing, director says

Robert Riddick, the agency's executive director, said employees were told Thursday that they would have to return the bonuses, which he called "one-time salary adjustments." He said the workers took the news well.

"I think they recognize the difficulty of these economic times," Riddick said. "They've been willing to do their part in the past when we had to leave positions unfilled and all do a little more work. They're willing to do their part again now and return the money."

Details of how employees will pay back the bonuses still had to be worked out, Riddick said.

"We will be working with our employees to repay," he said.

He described Thursday's decision as a response to community concern.

Many employees have spent the money, said Kerry Friedman, who identified himself as the domestic partner of a center employee who received a bonus. He declined to give the amount she received but said most of the bonuses were less than $1,000.

Matthew Varpness, who identified himself as the husband of regional center caseworker Rebecca Varpness, said the Visalia family had spent her bonus of about $1,000 to pay off debts.

"There's no way to get it back," he said.

One group that criticized the bonuses expressed support for the center's decision Thursday.

"We're very happy the board of directors for the regional center has changed their decision," said Ron Killingsworth, Central Valley spokesman for the California Disabilities Services Association, a group of organizations that provide services to the developmentally disabled.

'Caught in the middle'

Killingsworth said he felt bad for the employees who must pay back the money. The employees are "caught in the middle at this point," Killingsworth said. "I feel for them."

Lynne Arnold of Exeter said she likes the regional center caseworker who is assigned to her 11-year-old autistic son.

But services are being cut for children, Arnold said. The center could not pay for her son to go to summer camp this year because of the state's finances, she said. "It's a really ugly situation."

Parents have been understanding about the state budget crisis, she said. But the employee bonuses were "like a slap in the face."

Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter, had requested that the agency explain its actions. Florez said the bonuses raised "a whole host of ethical and programmatic questions."

Riddick responded Thursday in a letter to Florez, saying he wanted to assure the senator that the "board exercised due diligence before reaching their decision" to distribute the one-time salary adjustments to the staff.

The board would not have taken the action if there were not adequate funds through June 30 to meet the needs of the people the agency serves, he wrote.