Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

Hillsborough social service agencies facing steep cuts

Last year, the Children's Board of Hillsborough County gave $377,000 to a Brandon agency that helps adopted children and their new families work out problems and stick together. ¶ But next year? The Sylvia Thomas Center for Adoptive & Foster Families may get nothing. ¶ "We're scrambling," said Denise Jamieson, the center's executive director. "There's a chance we could go out of business if we don't find (funding)." ¶ The adoption center is one of 37 programs that didn't make the first cut in the competition for $20 million in Children's Board tax dollars.

Nonprofit agencies submitted more than 70 proposals totaling $55 million, which were reviewed and assigned scores by community review teams of volunteers.

Officials with the 34 programs that made it to the second round began their interviews with the Children's Board staff last week. Organizations that were rejected can appeal the decision to the agency's board of directors.

The grant competition is a new way of doing business for the Children's Board, an independent agency that taxes county property owners.

Traditionally, the agency set aside money each year for more than 100 family-related programs, ranging from ones run by Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA to those run by the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office or the University of South Florida. Although the contracts were year to year, funding was generally renewed as long as those programs met certain requirements.

But the new grant program is different: It requires organizations to compete with one another for funding. In addition, applicants must focus on the needs of pregnant women and children up to age 8.

Officials say declining tax revenue has driven the decision to make sure funding is more closely focused on programs that help prevent poverty or future problems with learning and health. The $20 million available next year for organizations that provide services to county children is roughly the same awarded in the current year.

Chris Brown, the chairman of the agency's board of directors, said the Children's Board had for years been primarily renewing contracts.

"The entire reason is accountability," said Brown, who is legal counsel for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "It hasn't been an easy road . . . but it's for the greater good."

But some organizations say the new approach is wrong-headed and leaves a funding gap for older children and those already in trouble.

"They only want to serve healthy children, to keep them healthy," said Jamieson, of the Sylvia Thomas Center, who has appealed the decision. The center gets nearly 100 percent of its funding from the Children's Board.

She said the Children's Board told her the center's proposal fell short because it serves older children and because the parents don't fit a certain set of circumstances, including being homeless, speaking no English or being incarcerated.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which runs the 2-1-1 social services hotline, also got a rejection letter. The organization, which is appealing, had asked for $644,308 to pay for counseling for sexually abused children and help cover the costs of the hotline.

Chief executive officer David Braughton said the counseling that the Children's Board has helped fund in the past is for children who don't qualify for Medicaid but whose parents can't afford the cost. He said the Children's Board should have set aside money for treatment.

"They just decided they weren't going to do therapy," he said. "I think the sad part is they could've done things differently.

Though the grant program is new, the debate is not. Top Children's Board officials have long endorsed preferential funding for prevention programs over so-called deep end services for children already in crisis.

But given the needs in the county, that philosophy hasn't played out in practice. The Children's Board for years has financed agencies that provided such services as counseling for sexually abused children.

Not everyone has to compete for the money.

Another estimated $2.3 million is reserved for organizations that are guaranteed money due to their "strategic alignment and potential for leveraging" other funding sources, according to a statement from the Children's Board. Those organizations include the Early Learning Coalition and Homeless Coalition.

In addition, that extra money will help pay for programs that contribute to public awareness of the Children's Board. That includes the Children's Board Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, the Glazer Children's Museum and a social enterprise competition for nonprofits.

The agency's board of directors will make preliminary budget decisions in June.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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