Faced with a decision of how to spend limited funds, the county and the Juvenile Welfare Board hired a consultant to rate an areawide referral service.
But rather than recommending funds be cut, the consultant says that 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares should get more money for its helpline.
"The (Health and Human Services Coordinating Council) policy board should take affirmative actions to ensure that 2-1-1 TBC is appropriately financed by strongly recommending to the Pinellas County commissioners and to the board of directors of the Juvenile Welfare Board that they jointly make a commitment of at least $800,000 per year for three years for the core support of 2-1-1 TBC," the report concludes.
The Health and Human Services Coordinating Council, made up of county commissioners, JWB board members and Sheriff Jim Coats, is scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss the report.
Gay Lancaster, JWB executive director, said she will do what her board wants, but stressed that JWB is in a difficult financial situation and may not be able to provide any funding.
We just don't have it," Lancaster said. "We're going to be $8 million lighter this year. It's going to be a struggle to cover what we've already been funding — we won't be able to."
2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares has roots that go back 35 years as a helpline. In 2001, the number 2-1-1 officially became the three-digit code for referrals to community organizations that can provide services for various needs ranging from help with utility bills to referrals for such things as mental health, homelessness and food.
2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares links people to more services than referrals. It provides 24-hour community voice mail, the Tampa Bay Information Network to help monitor homelessness, several hotlines, and other activities. It also serves Citrus and Hernando counties.
The agency gets its money from various sources, including the United Ways of Tampa Bay and Citrus and Hernando counties, the federal Department of Housing and Human Development, Pinellas County and the JWB. The helpline portion of the agency has a budget of about $811,000.
As money has gotten tight, funding has shrunk. JWB, in particular, told 2-1-1 last year that it would no longer provide any funding beginning with the 2009-10 fiscal year. But the problems with JWB funding started before last year. JWB defunded 2-1-1's volunteer action center a couple of years ago. And it only gave the agency about $290,000 this year for its helpline as a bridge to helping it adjust to the lack of funding that was threatened for the coming fiscal year.
Faced with pleas from 2-1-1 that removing the funding would eliminate a needed community service, JWB and the County Commission jointly paid $50,000 for Civil Society Consulting Group of Washington, D.C., to evaluate the program. The conclusion was clear: If Pinellas had no 2-1-1 system, it would have to be invented.
The consultant agreed that 2-1-1 needed some tweaking — some of its databases with available referrals are not up to date — but it also concluded that those providing the funding could do a better job. Not only could they give more funds, they could better coordinate the demands they make of 2-1-1 for reporting its progress. The consultant also urged the creation of a group to help maximize both the funding 2-1-1 receives and the services it offers.