A Shadow Looming on Possible Dreams

Carly Simon Has Been Big Fundraiser for Community Services Auction; Now She Backs Union Workers

By MANDY LOCKE

The poster child for the Possible Dreams Auction stepped into the middle of an escalating salary dispute at Martha's Vineyard Community Services last week.

Carly Simon, a singer/songwriter and year-round resident of Tisbury, announced in a letter to the Gazette Friday that she will earmark 30 per cent of her donated dream's price tag to additional wage compensation for employees at the health and human services agency.

"This is the rainy day period. We're at that level - at the point that Katharine Graham envisioned when she encouraged the endowment," Ms. Simon said in an interview at her Lambert's Cove home Friday afternoon.

Her stipulation casts a shadow over the Island's premier fundraiser - an event in which star-studded promises have poured more than $400,000 into the nonprofit's coffers in a single night. Ms. Simon's donations of private concerts or song-writing sessions have, more than once, drawn dueling bidders - raking in more than $160,000 in 1994. She is the highest-yielding dream giver in the auction's 25-year history.

But Ms. Simon said that this spring, after learning more about the financial plight of staff at the Island Counseling Center - one of two groups of employees locked in contentious union contract negotiations primarily hinging on wage issues - she decided to attach some strings to this year's gift.

"You just presume it's okay to not know how staff are paid. But when you know, if you are like me, you want to fix it. To fix it, you must expose it," said Ms. Simon of her decision to publicly announce her allocation and challenge other celebrity donors to do the same. A pile of handwritten letters was scattered about Ms. Simon's sofa, many of them from ICC employees sharing stories about their hardships.

Ms. Simon was conspicuously absent from last year's auction, which she said was held as she first began feeling uncomfortable about labor tensions at Community Services.

Thirty-five employees, now represented by Service Employees International, Hospital Workers Union local 767, and management are miles apart in their visions of fair compensation. Union employees asked for increases averaging 35 per cent, at a cost to the agency of about $200,000 next year. Management rejected that request, offering instead a two-and-a-half per cent cost of living adjustment and a promise to reopen negotiations in the fall to discuss wages further.

"Certainly the hope is that [the position Ms. Simon has taken] will reassure management there will be a variety of ways to support wages financially," said Jane Dreeben, an ICC employee.

Community Services management would not comment yesterday on the impact of Ms. Simon's gesture.

Auction organizers, a team of volunteers who act independently from the board of directors and management of Community Services, hand over the Possible Dreams revenues each year to the Community Services board of directors to allocate as they see fit.

"We don't put stipulations on the money we raise. Community Services budgets a deficit, and a big part of that [deficit] is salary. Fundraising fills that deficit," said Amy Eisenlohr, longtime co-chairman for the Possible Dreams Auction. "We do what we do unconditionally - no strings attached."

Auction organizers said they hope that Ms. Simon's decision to attach strings to her gift will energize high rollers to boost their giving.

"I don't think it will have negative impact. It's about a generosity of spirit. Carly sees it as something that troubles her, and she's trying to fix it the best way she knows how," said Kerry Scott, veteran auction co-chairman.

"Carly threw down a challenge," she added.

But Ms. Simon's challenge, and the increasingly public nature of the dispute inside Community Services, could create financial problems for the agency in the coming year. Community Services anticipates finishing its current fiscal year $100,000 in the red. A draft budget for the 2004 fiscal year counts on $350,000 from the Possible Dreams to support its day-to-day operations. About 80 per cent of the agency's $5 million operating budget is already dedicated to s\alaries - a reality of a direct services agency.

"The bottom line is that without the money, people wouldn't get services and staff would lose their jobs," said Ms. Scott.

But ICC employees say its time for the agency to invest more in staff compensation, an opinion Ms. Simon seconded in her Possible Dreams offer.

"We're asking them to invest in a dedicated, intelligent, hard-working staff," said ICC employee Amy Lilavois. "People keep saying that this could topple the Possible Dreams auction. Well, ICC will topple if everyone leaves."

"Unless it feels like less of an assembly line, the community is not going to get the care we need," Ms. Simon said.

Ms. Simon stressed that her gesture is simply one step toward trying to strengthen compensation for these health and human service agency employees.

"This is only an interim remedy until we get this solved," she said. "The money's not going to the place I perceive it needs to go."