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Ensnared in Pasco Hernando workforce board case, Optima HVAC files for bankruptcy

Optima HVAC, one of the companies ensnared in allegations of financial mismanagement at the Pasco Hernando workforce board, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Port Richey company, owned by former workforce board chairman Steve Jensen, makes parts for laser printers. It lists assets and liabilities between $1 million and $10 million.

Optima was one of two Jensen-owned companies at the heart of a controversy over a workforce board program, paid for with federal money, that allows businesses to split the cost of training with the government.

A June report from the state Office of Inspector General found that Lee Ellzey, then-president of the Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership, approved $123,000 in in-house training costs for Jensen's Optima HVAC and Axon Technologies even after lower-level staff denied the application.

As board chairman, Jensen was Ellzey's boss.

The rate came out to about $3,844 an hour, which was "extraordinarily high and deviated from established practice," the 48-page report said.

The payments were never actually made to the trainer. But Jensen resigned shortly after the report became public, and the board later fired Ellzey and his senior vice president, Terry Williams.

In the bankruptcy papers filed this week, Optima listed its largest unsecured creditors. Topping the list? The state Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees the network of regional workforce boards. Chapter 11 is frequently referred to as a "reorganization" bankruptcy.

The filings indicate that Optima disputes a $47,175 claim by the state workforce agency. It is unclear what that money was for.

Agency spokesman Robby Cunningham said in a statement "We are familiar with the company but are unable to comment further at this time."

The lawyer for Optima, Michael Markham, was unsure about the circumstances behind the alleged debt but said: "Certainly, it's not the driving force behind the bankruptcy."

The state Agency for Workforce Innovation was the third highest unsecured creditor listed in Optima's bankruptcy filings. The top two were International Comfort Products of Tennessee ($1.35 million) and Merrill Lynch ($688,854).

The list also includes the Florida Department of Revenue ($25,000).

Optima says in its filings that it expects it won't have the money to cover those unsecured debts, which total well over $2.25 million.

At one time, business leaders heralded Optima as a local success story. Jensen started the company in his garage in 1987, to make, recycle and service toner cartridges and other devices.

By 2002, Optima boasted $8 million in annual revenues and a roster of customers that included Coca-Cola, Nabisco and the state of Florida. Its triple-digit sales increases consistently ranked Optima among the fastest-growing technology companies in the United States.

Over the years Optima partnered with nonprofit groups, such as Tampa's Lighthouse for the Blind, to put the disabled to work.

The Pasco Economic Development Council honored the business in 2002 as its Technology Industry of the Year.

Jensen served as chairman of the Pasco Hernando workforce board until his resignation in June. The workforce board handles federal and state employment programs and contracts with a company to maintain one-stop centers charged with matching job seekers with employers.

Since the recession and the passage of the federal stimulus package, the agency has seen its budget balloon from $6 million to $13 million.

The Office of Inspector General's report on the workforce board included other accusations of questionable expenses and nepotism. The report was sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review for possible criminal charges.

That case remains pending.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Ensnared in Pasco Hernando workforce board case, Optima HVAC files for bankruptcy 12/24/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 24, 2009 7:41pm]
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