Red Cross officials reluctant to discuss local chapter's issues

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   While the Carter County Red Cross office could open on a part-time basis on weekdays beginning next week, Red Cross regional brass remains tight-lipped as to exactly why the organization's regional volunteer committee denied the chapter's re-chartering.
   "I'm not sure how much we need to go back into the past. We are looking at what we can do in the present and the future," said Hugh Quinn, Deputy Regional Officer for the southeast/southwest region of the Red Cross.
   Quinn and Red Cross state Field Representative, Debbie Rutland, appeared at the United Way board of directors' monthly meeting Tuesday to discuss the short and long-term objectives of Red Cross services in Carter County.
   Problems with the county's Red Cross office began in the fall 1999 when, according to Quinn, chapters were required to fulfill 33 requirements to meet rechartering standards, and the Carter County office failed to meet them.
   As a result, Quinn said the Red Cross Regional Volunteer Committee made the decision not to re-charter the Carter County chapter. He said the local chapter was given an opportunity to appeal the re-chartering denial via a conference call with Red Cross officials shortly before the office closed.
   The county's Red Cross board of directors resigned after a meeting held on Sept. 12. Chapter Director Leigh McKeehan and Disaster Services Director Natalie Smith resigned the next day and transferred incoming calls to the Kingsport chapter.
   "It caught us off guard," said Quinn. "They did not inform us of that and it left things in jeopardy."
   Quinn said he had talked with McKeehan on Sept. 12 and was given no indication that she or the board was planning to resign. He said he learned the county office had closed when a local television station contacted him seeking comment on September 13.
   Quinn said the regional office had worked with the county office for some time in an attempt to bring them into compliance. Meeting re-chartering demands is a process that would likely take more than one year, he said.
   "Our game plan is to keep a presence of the Red Cross in the county... that was our game plan all along," he said.
   Plans to protect local service include the Carter County chapter becoming a "service center", Quinn stated. Under this operation, administrative duties would be relocated to another, larger chapter.
   According to Jane Harris, Executive Director of the Kingsport Red Cross, the Carter County office would remain open with a "service coordinator" to direct volunteers, oversee classes, and develop disaster response and preparedness drills.
   "If we don't have a good source of funding, there will be a reduction in services," Harris said.
   The Kingsport Red Cross chapter has been handling telephone calls and providing Red Cross services for Carter County since the county office closed on Sept. 13. Quinn said the existing cooperation agreement between Carter County and Kingsport made diverting the services to the Kingsport chapter the most appealing.
   The American Red Cross provides relief services ranging from single-family disasters such as house fires to natural disasters.
   Harris said her chapter had answered two house fires and three military case calls in the county this week and told the board that her office tentatively planned to re-open the county's office on a part-time basis during weekdays with Kingsport volunteers beginning next week.
   "We would find some volunteers from our Kingsport office until we get some local folks," she said.
   Harris presented a temporary service plan to inventory the county Red Cross office, to obtain a copy of the county's disaster plan with the county's emergency management agency, and to recruit new volunteers.
   A long term service plan would move accounting and personnel management as well as health, disaster, and military case records to the Kingsport office. The county chapter's bank account is frozen and awaiting an audit of funds, according to the current analysis supplied by Harris.
   While United Way board members said they supported funding the Red Cross, several wanted more specific information about what requirements the charter had not met in re-chartering.
   However, Quinn said he was reluctant to divulge the details of the chapter's re-chartering problems given the media presence at the board meeting.
   The Red Cross began re-chartering all chapters in the early 1990s. The number of chartered chapters dropped by just under 1,500 between 1993 and 2000, according to Red Cross statistics.
   Quinn told the board the national chapter had given the county's chapter a five-year grant totaling $127,000 for the administration of disaster relief services in 1999.
   However, he said the regional office asked the Red Cross headquarters in Washington to stop the grant last year.
   "We actually requested they put a halt to those funds about one year ago because in our review they weren't being used as intended," said Quinn, who did not elaborate on how those funds were being used.
   The Elizabethton City Council approved the city's 2002-2003 budget that allocated $1,100 to the Red Cross chapter in July.
   City Manager, Charles Stahl, said Tuesday that the city council would have to receive a request to consider activating those funds now that the chapter was closed.
   "It was at least understood that those funds would benefit the local chapter," said Stahl. "I don't think anyone would want to see those funds taken out of the area."
   Harris said the Kingsport chapter also served Hancock, Claiborne and Johnson counties. She said Carter County's considerable population would necessitate maintaining a service center office in the county.
   Quinn also felt the service center approach would provide all the services citizens had come to expect from the Red Cross in times of emergencies.
   "I would contend you will see more consistency with our policy and procedures in your community," he said, "and you will see a rebirth in Red Cross activity."