Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Children's Board deals defies policy on no-bid contracts

TAMPA — Overseeing public contracts with social service agencies is the main job of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County.

But that expertise didn't stop officials from violating their own policies on nearly $450,000 worth of no-bid contracts dating to 2007, according to a Times review of records. Two of the firms that received those contracts have personal ties to top executives at the Children's Board.

The records show Children's Board administrators did not make a case for issuing the no-bid contracts or seek new prices each year, two steps required by agency policy.

The multi-year contracts are for groups that don't provide direct services to families, the primary mission of the Children's Board. The contracts include:

• $201,825 over six years for Bamboo Kazoo, a production company whose owner is a friend of Children's Board chief executive officer Luanne Panacek.

• $176,170 for the University of South Florida's Florida Mental Health Institute, where a director is the partner of another top-level Children's Board executive, Laurie Bettinghaus.

• $50,000 in the last two years to Centrasoft, a software developer whose owner was a former staffer at the board.

Under its policy, the Children's Board must seek bids, quotes or requests for proposals on purchases of $10,000 or more. The policy says that if officials believe only one vendor exists within a 100-mile radius, they must lay out the justification in what's called a single-source purchase statement.

The policy also requires that officials get quotes on an annual basis to verify that no one else can do it cheaper.

The Children's Board violated both of those requirements on Bamboo and Centrasoft. On the USF institute contract, the agency failed to seek annual quotes, as the Times has previously reported.

Chris Brown, the chairman of the agency's board of directors, said he was concerned with the Times' findings. He noted that the board will soon take up a proposal to tighten policies and procedures.

"I need to hear from the staff if the policy was followed or not, and I need to hear about any corrective measures we've taken," said Brown, who is legal counsel for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

Those cases don't include the 10 or so groups that have also enjoyed zero competition for work by virtue of being labeled "program support." Those groups were previously funded by the same pot of money that goes to the nonprofits that provide direct services. This year they were pulled out into a "program support" fund, which got about $731,000.

One of the recipients is GW Group, which received a $149,607 contract this year to provide business and "social enterprise" training to nonprofit groups and had already received nearly $903,000 worth of previous contracts from the Children's Board.

GW, a Tampa firm, did not have to compete with any other company for this year's contract, but CEO Panacek argues it doesn't trigger the no-bid requirements because it came out of the program support fund.

But next year? She said the Children's Board has decided to rebid all those program support contracts, including GW's.

• • •

Hillsborough voters decided 25 years ago to add a new tax just for programs that help children. The Children's Board was the agency created to administer that money and act as a leading advocate for the county's youngest residents. Last year, the agency received nearly $30 million in county property taxes.

Bamboo Kazoo, which is owned by Kelly Hickman, has contracts dating to 2007. Her actual billings during that period total less than her contracts, or just under $131,500. She earned $25 an hour for all of her work except video editing, which drew a $50 hourly rate.

The contracts say Hickman was hired to assist with "special projects," which include filming and editing video, assisting with training and conference events, and "developing electronic learning opportunities."

Hickman was initially hired in 2007 as a contractor to assist with a data entry project. The Children's Board said in a statement this week that because of her experience running conference centers and her familiarity with the Children's Board, she was kept on as a contractor to "provide support in the facilities/conference center."

Hickman, a friend of Panacek, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

It's unclear how long she and Panacek have known each other. In June 2010, the two women co-hosted a political fundraiser for Valerie Goddard, who was a Hillsborough County Commission candidate. Goddard serves on the board of directors for the Children's Board.

The other two hosts were board chief financial officer Tonia Williams and Renee Warmack, a former board staffer. In 2010, Warmack got a $1,200 sole-source contract for promoting and managing a series of board workshops.

In a statement, Panacek said, "After living in this community and working in this community for nearly 40 years, I have hundreds of friends. I did not file a conflict of interest statement because I played no role in contracting with Ms. Hickman."

Panacek said officials realized in January that the work Hickman had been doing required the board take her off contract and put her on staff. Panacek said failing to put Hickman's contract out to bid was "an oversight."

In February, Hickman left for another job. She is no longer on contract.

• • •

Centrasoft is owned by Brian Simmons, a software designer who was once employed by the Children's Board. While he was a staffer at the agency, Simmons developed a software program used to oversee emergency money for clients of various nonprofits.

After he resigned, the board decided to keep him on in a contract basis at $80 an hour to modify and upgrade the software. Officials did not put the project out to bid despite the contract amounts — $25,000 last year and $35,000 this year. (He has so far billed for about half of that amount.)

"This reduced the learning curve for a new developer to learn the software and the employees requesting the modifications," agency officials said in an e-mail.

Panacek said officials "noticed very recently that sole-source paperwork had not been done." (The Times asked about the documentation last week.) Panacek says they completed the paperwork and put it in Centrasoft's file on Friday.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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