At a time when nonprofits are struggling with declines in donations, Howard County's primary homeless shelter is taking the scion of one of the area's most prominent families to court over a $4,834.80 security deposit.
Leaders of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia are angry at what they see as an attempt by a former landlord to take advantage of a charity.
"We work hard for every penny we get," said Grassroots' director, Andrea Ingram. "It's a huge amount of money if you think of it in terms of donations."
Bruce Taylor, a psychiatrist whose family has had land and commercial properties in Ellicott City for 70 years through three generations, said keeping part of the deposit is justified because of damage that was found when the nonprofit departed.
"It's a shame that it has come to this," he said. "They do some very good work."
At stake is a portion of a $10,500 security deposit paid by Grassroots to lease a vacant house from Taylor's firm in September 2006 at his family's former private psychiatric hospital in Ellicott City. Sheppard Pratt has operated the hospital there since 2002, but the Taylor family owns the property. In recent years, the Taylors have developed some of the land near the hospital campus into an upscale housing development for seniors.
Rent on the house used as a temporary homeless shelter by Grassroots was $10,000 a month for one year and then rose to $10,500.
When a new, larger Grassroots building was finished in May 2008, the county's homeless left the two-story, wood frame house known as Building 21. It remains vacant, Taylor said.
Ingram said 10 homeless men were housed on the first floor and families with children used 20 beds on the second floor in a dormitory-style arrangement. Grassroots' administrative offices and other programs were housed in a county-owned house in Savage.
Grassroots had $35,000 in donated plumbing and other minor renovations done to the house to make it suit the purpose, Ingram said, and that was left intact when the agency moved out. Grassroots officials contend that they left the building better than they found it.
Taylor's firm, Historic Ellicott City Properties, says that damage to the building was found when Grassroots left. Ingram contends that nearly all of the damage was there before the lease began, and she says she has photos to prove it. A District Court trial is scheduled for April 13.
Ingram also says that Taylor did not abide by the lease terms, by failing to give an account of any damage in the prescribed 15 days after the lease expired, by not allowing Grassroots officials to accompany Taylor's inspectors, and by failing to return the deposit within 30 days of expiration.
A partial refund of $5,665.20 was received Oct. 4, according to court filings.
Taylor said he has done all he can.
"I worked diligently with them during and after the lease to solve all their problems," he said. "I think they're wrong. I don't feel I owe them any settlement."
Taylor confirmed that he had offered to compromise by returning more of the money. Ingram said the offer was for an additional refund of $2,100, which her board rejected.
Damage discovered after the nonprofit left included broken window locks, holes and crayon drawings on walls, a damaged handrail, broken furniture, missing ceiling tiles and broken lights, Taylor said.
Ingram conceded that one wall had been damaged slightly during the nonprofit's tenancy but said the rest of the damage existed when Grassroots moved in, which she says the photos show.
"We paid what I thought was a very high rent," said Mimi O'Donnell, board chairwoman for Grassroots. "We were over a barrel. We needed a place to put families."
Many nonprofits say they have felt the effects of the recession in the form of decreased grants and donations. Ingram said Grassroots has been notified that two grants for next year are being reduced by 10 percent.
O'Donnell said she believes Grassroots' status as a nonprofit makes it vulnerable in the current economic climate.
"We provide a service," she said. "Why would you do this to a nonprofit?"
Ingram initially filed the action in small-claims court but said the agency now has a pro bono attorney for the trial.
"If we were truly responsible for that much damage, we would pay for that," she said. "It's not just a matter of the money. We really feel we are correct in what we're asking for here."