NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - As summer crime rises in New Orleans, the non-profit that urges people to call in with anonymous tips is offering more money. Crimestoppers' goal is to help law enforcement solve additional crimes.
At a June 23 press conference, CEO Darlene Cusanza announced an increase in reward money being offered to tipsters. Through the summer months, Crimestoppers will offer up to $5,000 for information on homicides leading to an arrest and conviction.
Just last month we asked Cusanza if rewards should be increased from the $2,500 that was being offered in order to entice more tips.
"We did a study and we looked at comparisons and we came up with a number of $2,500 which other organizations have since bumped up to," Cusanza said in our May 10 interview.
Cusanza also said the non-profit always had to have enough money in the bank - reserve funds - in case tipsters came forward with information on crimes from years past.
"We always have to be fiscally responsible," Cusanza stated.
We decided to take an in-depth look at Crimestoppers' financials. We discovered the organization has around $3 million in assets. We also found that one third of the money spent in 2015 was spent on salaries, with Cusanza earning a salary of $169,000 and a total compensation package of $213,497.
"It seems to me, and in particular in her case, to be compensation heavy," said CPA Pat Lynch.
Lynch reviewed financial statements and an audit performed by an independent accounting firm.
"One salary alone constituting 27 percent of revenues and 29 percent of their total expenses of $740,995, seems high," he said.
We asked Cusanza if she thought her salary was in line with other similar-sized Crimestoppers organizations around the country.
"I think the salary that's been provided to me has been approved and voted on by the board, and I think the president of the organization is here today and I think he'd be happy with any question that you would have regarding my compensation," Cusanza said.
Cusanza's compensation is broken down like this.
She received a base salary of $169,744; $10,000 toward her pension; $11,700 for health/medical insurance; $824 for the use of an automobile; $1,229 toward life insurance; and a $20,000 bonus, for a total package of more than $213,000.
Sandra Miniutti, who works for the website Charity Navigator, which is a watchdog group for non-profits around the country, weighed in.
"Even for the smallest charities that we rate, the compensations for the CEOs tend to be around $100,000 a year, so Darlene is making about twice what a comparable-sized charity is making, in our experience."
"Based upon what she does, the stresses she faces, the amount of time she puts in and comparables, Darlene Cusanza is probably underpaid," Crimestoppers board of trustees member Jim Letten said.
Letten said if possible, the board would likely vote to increase Cusanza's salary, saying the more than $200,000 compensation package she receives isn't enough.
We asked if the stresses Cusanza faces in her job are greater than those of the New Orleans police chief or the district attorney, who both make less than she does?
"Do I think that her stressors are more than theirs? I think they approach theirs. I'll tell you, Darlene has had threats over the years," Letten said.
Letten decided to sit down with us this week, more than a month after our initial Crimetracker investigation aired. During our interview, he stressed that he believes both NOPD Chief Michael Harrison and DA Leon Cannizzaro are underpaid. They both make less than $200,000 a year.
While Cusanza isn't a member of law enforcement, she works closely with them to execute her organization's mission, helping to reducing crime. In fact, an email sent to FOX 8 last week on behalf of the board of trustees and board of directors said, "Crimestoppers is a crime fighting tool."
Regarding her compensation, Letten also said the board firmly stands behind Cusanza and her work, including that $20,000 bonus.
Back in May, we asked Cusanza if there were certain goals set that she had to meet in order to make that bonus.
"I think that looking at my compensation, certainly has been approved by our board of directors, there are certainly standards that they follow," Cusanza said.
Crimestoppers Board Chairman Mike Meguerditchian, who was present during our interview with Cusanza, refused to go on camera. Instead, hours later Crimestoppers emailed the following statement:
"Her discretionary merit bonuses, when given, are based upon a number of factors including achieving set goals determined by the executive board of directors and are not based solely on statistics but on overall merit, commitment, and effective support to law enforcement in solving cases and her expanded role of reaching at risk youth in the community."
The statement didn't outline the specific set goals for her bonus.
"I don't know specifically what those goals are. I do know that the performance of Darlene, how hard she works, the types of crimes that are solved, the type of community outreach that she does, all that goes into the mix," Letten said.
"It may very well be merit-based, but they're reporting that they're not going through a compensation review practice, so those two things don't add up. So I'd want to know more from the non-profit," Miniutti said.
We compared Cusanza's compensation package to executive directors of Crimestoppers organizations in other cities using information from their 990s filed with their individual states. Some are strictly run by volunteers.
Others, like Crimestoppers of Greater New Orleans, are supported by a board of directors with a handful of paid employees carrying out the day-to-day work. We found that in Memphis, the director makes $78,000. In Detroit, $145,000 a year. In Kansas City, $113,602. And in Houston, the executive director makes $152,000 a year.
As far as how much money Crimestoppers has on hand, we took a look at their financials from 2015, which includes public money paid through court fees.
We told you the organization has about $3 million in assets. Letten said not all of that money is available to use, as some funds, like the court fees, are restricted for certain uses. That public money can only be spent on the operation of a tipline and for rewards - it can't be used for salaries.
Letten said there's only a little over $1 million actually available.
"For an entity like Crimestoppers to have assets of $1.2 million that are actually available is, I think, playing it very, very close," Letten said.
Pat Lynch disagrees, saying the figure would be closer to $2 million. Regardless, Lynch says when you look at the money Crimestoppers spent in 2015, almost $741,000, he believes it's excessive for $200,000 of that to be used on one person's salary.
"I don't see it being utilized effectively," Lynch stated.
Jim Letten said the work Crimestoppers does in the community is critical and calls Darlene Cusanza the lifeblood of the organization.
Here's an idea of what some top law enforcement officials in our community make. NOPD Supt. Michael Harrison's salary is set at $154,000, including benefits. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro makes $150,000. St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith earns a compensation package of $159,000. And colonel of the State Police, Kevin Reeves, in charge of the entire state of Louisiana, earns $177,000.
Letten said Cusanza is nearing the end of a three-year contract, meaning the board will vote in the near future on her salary for the next three years.