Although the COVID-19 crisis played a major role in The Business Council of Fairfield County’s decision to close at the end of the month, discussions about possibly shuttering it had been going on for the past several weeks, according to James Fitzgerald, the council’s board chairman.
Speaking exclusively with the Business Journal, Fitzgerald said yesterday’s announcement was the culmination of “our having discussions about the future of the council for some period of time.”
Such discussions are a matter of course, Fitzgerald said – part of a regular systemic review to see how the council should “chart its course forward.”
While not providing specifics, Fitzgerald said the council’s finances had been a cause of concern for some time.
“Then along comes this coronavirus,” he said. “Quite frankly, that wasn’t the reason for going forward with the dissolution, but it was certainly the tipping point – an infrastructure shock to the system.
“The virus was so vicious in terms of the impact it’s had over a short period of time,” he added.
The Stamford nonprofit, which was formed in 1970, had hired Erin Flynn as its new president and CEO in January, after Chris Bruhl retired from that position after 30 years. “Erin was very much involved in our strategizing about the future,” Fitzgerald said.
Asked if Flynn had known about the council’s shaky foundations before taking the job, Fitzgerald said, “She was aware. But would we have hired her if we had known what was going to happen? The answer is no.
“We all think so highly of her,” he said of Flynn, who relocated to the area from Portland, Oregon to take the position. “I can’t say enough good things about Erin.”
Vice President and Director, Fairfield County Information Exchange Lisa Mercurio said the organization has received numerous emails from its constituents since yesterday, who are “clearly disappointed. We’ve worked with thousands of individuals, and we’re getting calls from people who have been with the organization since before I came here” 20 years ago.
Fitzgerald said he had also received an abundance of calls “from the political side to the business side and everybody in between.”
Although the council is due to close on March 31, Fitzgerald indicated that its final chapter may not necessarily have been written.
“We’re fully focused on doing this the right way,” especially when it comes to the organization’s 10 employees, he said. “It would be wrong to suggest that those kinds of conversations are a part of the current situation.”
Nevertheless, he said, “The Business Council has a lot of resources that it provided to the community. It’s a little too soon (to discuss a possible resurrection after the coronavirus crisis has passed), but there are all sorts of ideas flying out. We’ll evaluate them when it’s appropriate.”
A leader at another area nonprofit had recently opined off the record that executives like Bruhl and Business Council Vice President, Public Policy and Programs Joe McGee had essentially bankrupted the organization through salaries and bonuses. The Business Council had denied those rumors.
A review of the nonprofit’s Form 990 – the IRS form that provides the public with financial information about a nonprofit organization – revealed that in for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the Business Council listed $1,417,551 in salaries, with year-end assets of $501,573 and liabilities of $1,379,111. For the year ending June 30, 2017, salaries were listed at $1,471,867, with year-end assets of $324,249 and liabilities of $1,789,766, and for the year ending June 30, 2018 – the last year to be made publicly available – salaries were put at $1,471,339, with year-end assets of $187,716 and liabilities of $1,594,635.
Specifically, Bruhl was paid $369,695 in salary in FY 2017-18; $359,533 in salary in FY 2016-17; and $347,379 in salary in FY 2015-16.
McGee received $254,648 in salary and $35,905 in other compensation in FY 2017-18; $243,503 in salary and $37,609 in other compensation in FY 2016-17; and $233,685 in salary and $51,574 in other compensation in FY 2015-16.
For FY 2017-18, The Business Council of Fairfield County Foundation showed $991,275 in assets and $112,923 in liabilities, with Bruhl listed as receiving $57,442; for FY 2016-17, it listed $789,480 in assets and $13,414 in liabilities, with Bruhl receiving $53,112; and for FY 2015-16, it reported $320,628 in assets and $2,286 in liabilities, with Bruhl receiving $53,557.
Asked again for comment, a Business Council representative said: “While it is hard to understand how a 50-year-old business organization can undergo this, the real issue was the BCFC business model in light of the changing nature of the economy. We have a different economy now — not weaker, but different.
“The BCFC was built on a traditional membership association model with membership dues based on number of employees,” the representative added. “While the BCFC had begun to implement changes as the business base changed, it didn’t change fast enough. The halt of business activity we are seeing as a result of the pandemic has accelerated that.”
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