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Benchmark again needs financial relief

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For the second time in less than two years, the Watertown Local Development Corp. will try to help Benchmark Family Services get through difficult financial times.

On Thursday, the WLDC board approved a temporary repayment plan for the day-care center’s $224,433 loan from the economic development organization.

Benchmark, 1635 Ohio St., would pay on the interest of the loan, not on the principal balance.

The arrangement would begin this month and end in September, said CEO Donald W. Rutherford of the WLDC, also known as the Watertown Trust. The deal also must be approved by the Jefferson County Local Development Corp. because it is the lead agency on the loan, he said.

Benchmark has been paying $1,936.76 a month to the WLDC, he said. Watertown Trust officials will not tally the amount that Benchmark would pay each month under the temporary financial arrangement until the county organization signs off on it, Mr. Rutherford said.

Benchmark offers preschool, early intervention and day-care services for infants, toddlers and preschool children.

Last week, Benchmark owner Marguerite K. “Peg” Feistel told the WLDC board that the day-care center is going through some lean times because five children dropped out of its programs recently. The business also has been dealing with some changes that the state has required for child-care facilities.

Mrs. Feistel told the WLDC board that she reduced staff, cut her pay and has tried to keep expenses down to get through the current financial situation.

“Right now, we’re in a crucial time and need some relief,” she said.

Mrs. Feistel hopes to hike revenues by adding programs, possibly including the universal prekindergarten program for General Brown Central School, Dexter. Benchmark already provides that service to Carthage Central School District, she said.

Mr. Rutherford said it would be a shame if the community lost Benchmark.

“It’s a service that’s needed,” he said.

In March 2012, the WLDC restructured the loan to keep the organization afloat after it went through other financial difficulties.

On Monday, Donald C. Alexander, CEO of the JCLDC, said his agency’s Loan Review Committee will take up the issue this morning, with the full board possibly voting on it next week.

Benchmark currently owes $226,464 to the JCLDC, Mr. Alexander said.

In 2011, the company came under fire when the state Office of Children and Family Services began license-revocation proceedings. The process stemmed from months of repeated OCFS visits to Benchmark’s facility, which was cited with numerous violations.

In 2010, an $800,000 deal — in which the Children’s Home of Jefferson County would have purchased all of Benchmark’s stock and its facility — fell apart, leaving the company in disarray.

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