TAMPA — The Children's Board of Hillsborough County's new funding formula for agencies has adversely impacted some nonprofits, but board members say the new approach will increase accountability and better target tax dollars.
Over the past two years, the board has changed how it determines which agencies to fund. The changes have allowed providers who had never received money to take part in the process, but because the new focus also requires those providers to detail how the tax dollars were spent, it has left some agencies with less money and less support.
One agency says it's shutting its doors because of the changes.
The tax-funded Children's Board shifted its focus last year away from older kids and toward early childhood intervention, a move that was more in line with its original purpose, said recently appointed executive director Kelley Parris.
Parris succeeded Luanne Panacek, who resigned last August following months of scrutiny for questionable spending, no-bid contracts and poor workplace morale. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio served as interim chief executive officer until Parris was hired. During her term, Iorio reduced the office to 36 employees from a high of 55.
The Children's Board had been considering re-evaluating its funding process for years, said chairman Chris Brown, general counsel for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The board saw a need to be more accountable to the public and to be able to clearly and effectively answer questions about how taxpayer money was spent and the effectiveness of those programs.
The first part of this new system involved creating a competitive bidding process to determine which agencies get money. All agencies that previously got funding had to reapply, and new agencies were allowed to compete for taxpayer money. Previously, agencies were renewed annually with limited evaluation.
"Nobody's going to be funded in perpetuity without having to reapply," Brown said. "That won't happen."
Some groups get less
During that process, some groups that previously received funding, such as the Family Justice Center, got less money. The justice center will close its doors this month, in part, because of a reduction in funding from the Children's Board.
The center, a comprehensive facility for domestic violence victims, included offices for the Spring domestic abuse shelter and Bay Area Legal Services under one roof on Florida Avenue in North Tampa.
The board initially denied funding to the Family Justice Center, but the center appealed and was awarded $308,000 less than the year before, said executive director Nikki Daniels. Daniels attributed the decrease in funding to the Children's Board's renewed focus on children up to age 8 and projects targeted at neighborhoods as opposed to a countywide approach.
"We lost close to a third of our budget and we haven't been able to make that difference up from other funding all in one year," Daniels said. "If we had maybe more time to make that transition, but with the economy the way it is, that's a lot of money to raise."
The Children's Board said it has contributed $4.7 million to the Family Justice Center since 2006. Parris said the Children's Board plans to directly contract with the Spring and Bay Area Legal Services to continue to meet the needs of domestic violence victims and their children and make sure no gaps in services form in the wake of the center's closing.
In addition to focusing on early childhood intervention and neighborhood based programs, the Children's Board is also requiring each agency to provide similar data so the board can better evaluate results and compare one agency's effectiveness to another. Ten months into the year, the board has started to receive some data, but the process hasn't been in place long enough to have a long-term analysis yet, Brown said.
"The whole process is to verify that we are providing the services that the community needs and the outcome that the community desires," Parris said. "We want to be as effective and efficient as we can be when providing services."
Parris, former director of Alabama's Department of Child Abuse Protection, said she has been requiring and working with outcome data for so long, that she couldn't imagine an agency not requiring it.
The 25-year-old Children's Board operates on money collected from property taxes and provides funds to about 44 nonprofit groups that promote child welfare.
Champions for Children got money for several years from the Children's Board and was successful in the competitive bidding process. Executive director Brian McEwen said the board made its new requirements clear, and his group was able to properly refine its proposal to meet the newly defined objectives.
Bumps along the way
However, the new process hasn't been without speed bumps, he said. The evaluation team was downsized during Iorio's term as interim director, McEwen said. Similarly, the staff cuts had some employees taking on new roles or added duties. And both new and old agencies were focused on ramping up new projects that were more in line with the Children's Board focus on early childhood intervention and neighborhood projects.
"These are just some of the realities that went on with this transition," McEwen said. "With the downsizing, more money went out on the street, which is great, but there are fewer staff to do the work and help with the transition."
The board will evaluate outcome data as it comes in during the next couple of months, but it will be some time before the impact of this new system can be evaluated, Parris said.
"As we go forward, we're going to get better and try to get people to understand that this is the only way we can best be accountable," Brown said. "Government needs to be and is accountable."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.