Waccamaw EOC shuts down for now

The Waccamaw Economic Opportunity Council effectively shut itself down late Wednesday afternoon, laying off 42 employees at least temporarily because it does not have the money to pay them.

The move brings an immediate halt to weatherization, low-income heating and several other programs managed by the agency for residents in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties. Summer feeding and Head Start programs are not affected.

The layoffs came despite a 21-day reprieve from the state Office of Economic Opportunity on terminating grant agreements over a dispute with the board.

Nine of the board's members have resigned in recent weeks but the remaining six have refused to step down despite the state's request that they do so.

Attempts to reach Zach Grate, board chairman, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

A state audit earlier this year found a number of things wrong at the agency, most involving board members.

The state recognizes only three of the remaining board members as being properly elected - Grate, McKnight and David Eagleton. Board members Abdullah Mustafa, John Battiste and Wade Sessions were not properly elected, according to the audit.

Beth Fryar, the agency's executive director, said the agency has $7,878 on hand in non-federal and non-state funding and is due $175,000 in reimbursements from the state office for money it has already spent.

She tried throughout the day to secure a line of credit with a bank to keep the agency running, but was unsuccessful. Fryar said she hopes some of the programs can be reinvigorated once the reimbursement money comes in, but she was uncertain if that will happen.

Fryar called a staff meeting at 4:58 p.m. to tell employees of the layoffs. Within an hour, a sign reading "Closed until further notice" was taped to the doors of the agency's Conway offices.

Inside, the table where board members sat Tuesday night remained much as they had left it. An unfinished water bottle sat in a plastic bag and the chairman's gavel lay on the table along with completed mileage forms from five board members.

The state had originally intended to terminate funding agreements at 5 p.m. Wednesday, but Louise Cooper, director of the state office, said a December 2009 federal memo reversed the order of action to be taken from what is specified in the office's guidelines. The memo said that a hearing must be held before the termination.

That means that the agency has 21 days to request a hearing before any termination action will happen.

Agency board member Isabelle McKnight said prior to a meeting Tuesday night that she would not resign because she felt the audit's findings were based on rumor.

"That's not true," Cooper said of the audit results on Wednesday

She said the audit's findings were based on minutes of board meetings, self-disclosure by some board members and observations at board meetings.