The Florida Department of Children and Families has decided to negotiate with both nonprofit agencies that applied to take over foster care services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
One group, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, has no experience overseeing foster care services but has deep local roots.
Its competitor, Camelot Community Care, has lots of experience with abused and neglected children but its partnership with an out-of-state, for-profit company has been questioned in the past.
DCF is expected to choose one of the agencies for the $49-million contract early next month. The winner would take responsibility for the two counties' 2,500 foster children July 1.
Nick Cox, the DCF's regional director in Tampa, said he decided to negotiate with both agencies after an outside evaluation Monday failed to produce a clear frontrunner.
"Clearly the evaluators saw two bids that were good, that really were very comparable,'' he said. "I think we need to No. 1, get the best system we can. And No. 2, to be fair to the bidders involved and negotiate with both and see what they have to offer.''
Camelot's chief executive officer, Mike DiBrizzi, said he believes his agency's experience will shine through in the negotiation process.
Eckerd spokesman Tom Denham said his agency's decades-long work with troubled youth will show its commitment.
"Our mission is to help kids,'' Denham said. "We believe that helping kids in (drug store founder Jack Eckerd's) hometown would be especially relevant.''
This is the first time DCF has negotiated with two foster agencies at the same time.
"We believe the competition is healthy," Erin Geraghty, a DCF spokeswoman.
When DCF last sought bids for the area, the Sarasota Family YMCA was the only interested agency.
Whichever agency is chosen, it will be the third nonprofit to oversee foster care in Pinellas and Pasco since the state began privatizing the child welfare system in 1997.
Family Continuity, a private agency, pulled out in 2004 after four years and financial problems. State officials then asked the Sarasota YMCA to step in and take over Pinellas and Pasco.
In November, the DCF announced it would not renew the Sarasota YMCA's contract in Pinellas and Pasco on the heels of a scathing report about the agency's poor performance.
One of DCF's priorities is to find a new foster agency with local ties, because the Sarasota-based YMCA was seen as being too far away to provide substantial community support.
Eckerd and Camelot are both based in Clearwater.
Eckerd is a 40-year-old private, nonprofit agency that provides services such as counseling, wilderness camps and residential programs to troubled youth in nine states.
Nine-year-old Camelot is a nonprofit social services agency overseen by a five-member board.
It partners for some of its operations with Tucson, Ariz.-based Providence Service Corp., a publicly traded company.
A Camelot subsidiary, the Children's Network of Southwest Florida, is the lead foster care provider in Fort Myers in Lee, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Charlotte counties.