When the Hawaii Center of Independent Living shuttered all five of its Neighbor Island offices in July, Nani Watanabe, an independent living specialist working at the Wailuku office, thought, "Here we go again."
It wasn't the first time the nonprofit had run out of money before the end of the fiscal year and had to close down its branches and furlough more than 20 employees. In 2011, Watanabe and other HCIL employees said, the center closed its offices from July 26 until mid-September. The following year, HCIL shuttered its offices again at the end of May and reopened Oct. 1.
After the nonprofit's administration announced it would be shutting down again last year starting June 28, Watanabe had assumed operations would resume when the nonprofit received its federal funding at the start of the new fiscal year in October - but it remained closed.
Former Hawaii Center of Independent Living client Mahealani Bettencourt of Wailuku wheels down a corridor at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center on Saturday afternoon.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Hawaii Center of Independent Living’s former office in Wailuku is closed and being renovated for a new tenant.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Mahealani Bettencourt of Wailuku is a former Hawaii Center of Independent Living client.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Instead, she was among recipients of a mass email sent three days after Christmas telling her that the HCIL offices would not be reopening and that she and other employees no longer had jobs.
At the start of the year, lessor representative Peake & Levoy posted a notice of eviction due to nonpayment of rent on the agency's office window in Wailuku, Watanabe said.
Peake & Levoy officials declined to comment.
"Now the worst part is there is no place for any of my clients to go to," Watanabe said.
There are more than 200 disabled residents on Maui who rely on HCIL's services, she said.
"I saw one of my clients who's diabetic at the beach last month, he looked so sick," Watanabe said. "I took it upon myself to take him to the doctor. His sugar level was more than 700. The doctor said he would've died within a few days."
HCIL started in Hawaii in 1981 and has had an office on Maui for nearly 30 years. According to its website, the nonprofit "serves and empowers people of any age with any type of disability to live independently" by providing peer counseling, outreach and public education, independent living skills, housing assistance and referrals, personal assistant services and a slew of other resources.
HCIL also has closed offices on Oahu, Molokai, Kauai, the Big Island and Guam.
The nonprofit received about $1.4 million in government grants administered through the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration and the state Department of Human Services for fiscal year 2011, according to its most recent tax filings, which are public record. Nonprofits are federally required to file a tax Form 990 every year, but there are no records that HCIL filed tax returns after 2011.
According to a statement from the RSA this month, the administration placed HCIL on "reimbursement" last year, a sort of probation that requires an organization to report and justify all expenses to the federal government.
"We placed the center on reimbursement since last year due to financial mismanagement; provided extensive technical assistance; issued a letter at the end of September requesting a corrective action plan within 90 days," the statement said. "The center did not submit the corrective action plan. At the end of December, we issued the final termination notice."
The state Department of Human Services administers about $200,000 in federal grant money to an independent living services provider in Hawaii every year. It also pulled its funding for HCIL last year after consulting with the RSA.
"Pretty much, they (HCIL) were naughty. Their parents up in D.C. told them what to do, and they didn't do it," said Albert Perez, administrator for the department's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Perez said that even before the nonprofit was put on reimbursement status, there were "irregularities" in how HCIL was drawing out money.
"Because they could draw down as needed, what was happening for the past two, three years, is that by summer, they exhausted their entire year's funding," Perez said.
Exactly how the funds were budgeted and spent remains unclear. Employees and former board members said they were not privy to those kinds of records, if they existed.
Maui board member Bryan Zoellner said that in his two years on the board, he never saw receipts, invoices or "any of those kind of documents."
Because many of the board members were volunteers who had little experience or knowledge in how to run a business, "We just trusted that the money was being used to help disabled people," Zoellner said.
"The board was dysfunctional. It was the first board I ever sat on, and I didn't know anything about parliamentary procedure," Zoellner said. "We should've been more involved. It was our responsibility to monitor what (the executive director) was doing."
When the offices closed for the third time last year, Zoellner sensed something was wrong and hired a lawyer to demand that the board be allowed to review financial documents, internal audits and other records. The nonprofit's executive director told him that it would take at least 30 days to find all the documents, and Zoellner said he has yet to see any of the requested documents.
It may be moot at this point because the nonprofit has already closed its offices with its funding cut. Former Executive Director Kimo Keawe, who had helmed the organization since 2010, either resigned or was fired at the end of November.
In a phone interview with The Maui News, Keawe said that he was fired because the board "all of a sudden" decided that he was not "significantly disabled" - a critical issue because the organization needed at least 51 percent of its employees "significantly disabled" to qualify for the federal funds.
Keawe said he is "totally blind in my left eye and vision-impaired in the right (eye)."
Keawe denied that there was ever any "financial mismanagement" on his part, but he acknowledged that the nonprofit struggled trying to get a grip on its finances. Annual furloughs were "necessary" due to "budgetary constraints," many of which stemmed from internal problems present long before he assumed the role of executive director, Keawe said.
He said that when he took charge in fall 2010, no internal audits had been done for the last five fiscal years, many key financial documents were missing and the board was constantly undergoing membership changes.
"We were never able to recover," Keawe said.
HCIL board President Glenn Sawai told The Maui News that Keawe resigned at the end of November "due to personal reasons."
Sawai took over as acting executive director at the start of December and is "just trying to put things back together."
"We are in the bottom of the barrel right now, looking up and saying this is what we have to get through before we can do anything," Sawai said. "We don't know if the feds gonna give us back the funding . . . but somebody's got to do it."
Although Sawai is trying to resurrect the agency, disabled residents and their advocates told The Maui News they're ready to wash their hands of HCIL and go in a different direction.
"The Maui people have been burned by Oahu and are just tired of it," Zoellner said. "We want a place for Maui people by Maui people."
Particularly painful is that the Maui office raised funds for the statewide organization but none of that money made it back to the Valley Isle.
"We received a $10,000 grant from the Harry & Jeannette Weinberg Foundation just last year. All of that money went to the main office on Oahu because we were not allowed to open up any other accounts," Watanabe said. "When I tried to request money to fund a tech fair last August, I was told there was no money."
Watanabe, Zoellner and others are seeking funding from public and private donors to start an entirely new nonprofit, based on Maui and for Maui, called the Maui Independent Living Center, or MILC.
"We want to help people with disabilities get momentum," Zoellner said. "We wanted a whole program devoted on training on how to advocate for yourself, how to ask for new sidewalks for your neighborhood that are ADA-accessible, how not to get kicked out of your apartment."
"Let's just do things right this time," Zoellner said.
HCIL was the only agency on Maui offering a full range of independent living services. During a Maui Wheelers meeting at Fernando's Mexican Restaurant in Kahului last month, disabled residents touted the work Watanabe and other former employees have done.
"If we don't have those (independent living) resources, I mean we're still out there but we can't get to higher goals. Research on your own is difficult, and the paperwork is overwhelming when we're just trying to get better," Wailuku resident Mahealani Bettencourt said. She suffered a spinal injury accident last year and is paralyzed from the waist down.
She said that the Maui HCIL office helped her fill out Social Security paperwork, submit home rental applications, navigate public transportation and, most importantly, meet other people who were also in wheelchairs.
"I woke up one day, and my old life was done. This is a new life," she said. "It helps to hear other people's stories and what they go through. That's why it's so important to have a place like HCIL on this island."
To donate to MILC or for more information, contact MILC treasurer Ed Muegge at 879-3544 or send mail to P.O. Box 1427, Kihei 96753.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.