A non-profit organization that receives most of its budget from federal grants and implements healthcare and education programs in the impoverished Delta region has a CEO whose salary and benefits has exceeded $350,000 for the past seven years.

The Delta Health Alliance — a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Leland — is led by Karen Matthews, whose staff had 10 employees earning $100,000 or more per year in 2017. 

The DHA was created in 2001 as a collaboration by the five public universities led by former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran to meet the healthcare and educational needs of the 18 counties in the Mississippi Delta region and funded by earmarks from the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In 2017, DHA had $18,806,915 in revenue, primarily from federal and state funds and the group spent $19,340,337 for a deficit of $533,422. Among the $14,275,706 in government grants received by the organization in 2017 include:

  • $5,642,945 in various grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • $3,284,675 from the U.S. Department of Education for the Indianola Promise Community
  • $3,114,998 from the Sunflower Childcare Coalition for early Headstart 
  • $1,376,231 from Medicaid Population Health.

Program services accounted for $14,391,625 of those expenditures.

Matthews was paid $417,576, with a base salary of $301,705, bonus and incentive compensation of $91,935, $18,102 in retirement and deferred compensation and $6,374 in nontaxable benefits.

Henry Womack Jr. is the Delta Health Alliance’s vice president of finance and administration. He was paid $217,191 in base salary, $28,917 in bonuses and $14,767 in retirement for a total of $260,875.

During the previous five years, Matthews was paid:

  • A $294,012 base salary with bonuses of $87,616, $22,905 for retirement, $6,331 for a total of $410,864 in 2016.
  • A $248,358 base salary with bonuses of $78,527 with $29,911 for retirement, $7,659 in non-taxable benefits for a total of $365,455 in 2015.
  • A $294,012 base salary with bonuses of $87,615 with $$17,499 for retirement, $16,129 in non-taxable benefits for a total of $415,447 in 2014.
  • A $248,358 base salary with bonuses of $78,527 with $29,911 for retirement, $7,659 in non-taxable benefits for a total of $365,455 in 2013.
  • Compensation of salary and benefits totaling $415,217 with no separate breakdown for bonuses and other benefits in 2012.

According to data from the Mississippi Department of Employment Services, the average chief executive in the state makes $112,310 per year and an experienced one averages $151,460.

According to a 2016 report on non-profit CEO compensation by Charity Navigator, the median CEO salary at 4,587 charities examined in the report was $123,362. According to a graphic in the same report, a charity with a similar amount of expenses as reported by the DHA would pay their CEO a median wage of about $200,000.

Among its 52 programs, the alliance owns a medical clinic in Leland, tobacco cessation programs throughout the Delta and operates the promise neighborhood programs in Indianola and Deer Creek. 

This Obama era program run by the U.S. Department of Education was created in 2009 and uses grants to non-profit organizations to help children growing up in distressed areas like the Delta have access to improved schools and better family and community support. 

DHA received a five-year, $30 million grant from the U.S. for Indianola in 2013 and another similarly sized grant in 2016 for Deer Creek, thanks to influence of Cochran, who chaired appropriations in the Senate at the time.

The salary largesse wasn’t always the case with the Delta Health Alliance. As recently as 2007, the center only paid its two top executives, CEO Cass Pennington and then-chief operating officer Matthews (known as Fox at the time) she was about $110,125 combined. The program had about $4.66 million in revenue and about $4.53 million in expenses, with $3.65 million spent on program services.

That changed in 2008, when the group received a Delta Health Initiative Grant of $12,868,684 and the salaries of both Pennington and Fox received huge boosts. Pennington’s salary climbed to $94,066 while Matthew’s increased to $154,960.

With DHA’s revenues increasing to $28 million per year by 2011, Fox’s base salary was increased from $233,325 to $393,398. 

Pennington was the executive director of the Delta Health Alliance from 2004 to 2008, is part of the DHA’s governing board and was later appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to the state’s lottery board. He was the former superintendent of the West Tallahatchie School District and later led the Indianola School District.

Matthews was under the cloud of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office after a former employee who was fired in 2010 accused her of wrongdoing in his wrongful termination lawsuit that was settled in 2011. No charges were filed against Matthews.

Among the allegations included a lease on a condominium in Oxford, paying for two cars on top of a $3,000 a month car allowance and payment for her childcare.

The organization also paid the Delta Council, a powerful advocacy group of Delta farmers, community and business leaders, an average of $272,000 per year for administrative services.