SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As Sacramento voters decide to approve a long-term funding stream for youth programs, a community leader advocating for those dollars is under scrutiny.
Derrell Roberts is best known as a community leader in Sacramento. His nonprofit Roberts Family Development Center is known for youth service programs and community pop-up events around the city, which began early 2019.
Roberts is one of the main proponents of Measure G, a highly debated ballot initiative facing Sacramento voters on the March primary ballot, which is arriving in people’s mailboxes this week.
Also known as Sac Kids First, Measure G would require Sacramento to set aside 2.5% of its general fund each year for youth programs. This comes out to approximately $10 million annually.
The measure is supported by many city leaders, including District 5 Councilmember Jay Schenirer.
"As we think of sustainability, a lot of times we think of green buildings," Schenirer explained. "We need to think of human infrastructure, and we need to think of our young people. They're the ones who are going to be really responsible for the long-term success of this city. And that's the investment we need to make today."
Sacramento Vice Mayor Jeff Harris, and several others, disagree, saying the there are other ways to create the funding for youth programs.
"The proponents want to gather a bunch of money together to do youth supportive services, which is a noble goal," Harris admitted. "However, the way they try to do it is by creating a tax lock box."
However it is generated, the idea for Measure G is to start using the money for programs for children and youth services — like those run by the Roberts Family Development Center.
Roberts and the Roberts Family Development Center were sued in 2017 by Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office on behalf of the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).
The lawsuit alleges Derrell Roberts and the Robert Family Development Center failed to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grant funds while it managed three migrant housing centers in San Joaquin County.
According to court documents, the Roberts Center transferred migrant housing funds into separate bank accounts owned by the Roberts Center and other unknown accounts.
The lawsuit said the Roberts Center failed to return more than $70,000 it collected in security deposits and overpaid rent, made more than $80,000 in credit card payments to unknown cards, purchased restaurant meals — including one meal at Ella Dining Room in Sacramento that cost $5,116.15 —and made more than $25,000 in tax payments to the IRS, among other allegations.
The lawsuit also alleged the Roberts Center admitted owing HCD at least some money and had been making monthly $5,000 payments since May 2016. At the time of the suit, the Attorney General’s Office alleged the Roberts Center still owed HCD approximately $650,000.
The lawsuit was settled in August 2019 for $400,000 with $100,000 being paid upfront and an additional $7,500 being paid monthly until the balance is paid in full.
Roberts declined an interview request from ABC10 but said he's being unfairly subjected to "defamatory attacks" by opponents of Measure G, who are using lawsuit that was already settled as a way to sway voters against the ballot effort.
"These unfair attacks are being made because of my active and outspoken support for Measure G," Roberts said in a statement to ABC10. "We have made many community leaders aware of this now resolved dispute with state regulators; and have always been fully transparent in our discussions about it."
While the Roberts lawsuit and Aug. 2019 settlement documents are public records, ABC10 and other Sacramento media outlets were made aware of them recently, just as Californians were beginning to receive their ballots in the mail.
Vice Mayor Harris said regardless of the political timing of the resurfaced lawsuit and settlement, he is against the measure because it is not the right way to fund youth programs.
"You could call it political, but my objection to Measure G is, it’s a tax lock box," Harris said. "It’s ballot box budgeting. And I don’t support it. I don’t support it in any way, shape or form."
Still, Harris said Roberts' lawsuit and settlement is of "great concern" considering his position in the community as the leader of a nonprofit.
"To me, it's a difficult situation when someone who runs a nonprofit and is receiving very substantial funds from the city — $1.6 million over the last 10 years — is the proponent of a measure that would lock up city funds to fund nonprofits," Harris said.
Councilmember Schenirer acknowledged the controversy but explained he wants to focus on the positives of Measure G.
"I know some of the opponents of this have held up Derrell and what he’s done as something that's horrible about nonprofit organizations," Schenirer said. "We have many, many excellent nonprofit organizations in this city."
Schenirer said he would like to see more money invested in the futures of Sacramento's kids — about 40% of the city's budget, to be more specific.
Schenirer said he believes there needs to be a safeguard in place to ensure youth investments don't get cut, should the economy falter.
"What happens is, I've seen this here before, is when you hit a recession, generally youth services are the first to go," Schenirer said. "And I think we need to protect those things. I think this is as important as anything else we do."
As for Roberts' settlement impacting Measure G, Schenirer said "I've known Derrell since I was on a school board, and I’ve always known him to be greatly concerned about kids, particularly those who are most at risk. And he's done a great job in that."
Schenirer added the city is currently conducting its own investigation into the lawsuit and settlement.
Tim Swanson, spokesperson for the City Manager, said the city is aware of the lawsuit. Swanson said the Roberts Center has received $1.6 million in funding from the city since 2010 and currently has $550,000 in pending requests.
The City Manager asked the City Auditor to work with the Roberts Center to validate that all city funding is being used in accordance with the various grant agreements.
The city will not be considering additional funding requests from the Roberts Center until the review is completed.
Still, as Swanson said, "the City of Sacramento stresses that there has been no determination of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the City Manager feels this course of action is prudent."
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