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Hillsborough Children's Board plans for audit, new contract procedures

TAMPA — Less than a week after acknowledging problems with nearly $450,000 in no-bid contracts, officials with the Children's Board of Hillsborough County say they are taking corrective steps, including rebidding work and running all new contracts through a procurement team.

"There's no doubt there were mistakes made," chief executive officer Luanne Panacek told the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday.

The public agency's board members also plan to vote today on paying $10,000 to consultant Invictus Human Capital Management to study the board's staffing levels, culture and post-recession business model.

Board members have discussed hiring a consultant since early 2011. Today's decision comes after a series of recent Times reports questioning the agency's spending and its no-bid contracts, including ones with organizations and companies that share personal ties with Children's Board executives.

"We are trying to analyze these issues that have been brought out and we encourage good, hard, fair questions," said Chris Brown, chairman of the agency's 10-member board.

The Children's Board was created nearly 25 years ago to administer a countywide property tax devoted to children's programs and act as a leading advocate for the county's youngest residents. Last year, the agency collected nearly $30 million in county property taxes.

This year, the Children's Board began requiring social service programs to apply and compete for the nearly $20 million available for contracts. The focus must be on children up to age 8. Officials say the idea is to add a layer of accountability, doing away with the decades-old practice of simply renewing contracts.

"Continuing to focus on that issue is something we did clearly right," Brown said.

But the process so far has not been popular with many organizations, particularly those that have come to depend on funding from the board.

For instance, representatives from Pastors on Patrol, a coalition of 108 mostly African-American churches, plan to attend today's meeting and argue that vital services, including after-school programs in poor neighborhoods, face extinction as a result of the new process.

Officials said Wednesday that they know there are staff morale issues. Panacek said two staff members have filed complaints against the board with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Amid this upheaval, the agency also has been trying to answer questions raised in recent Times reports, including ones about staff salaries (the average is about $66,000, and Panacek earns $171,330 ) and the use of its nearly $4 million headquarters in Ybor City.

Brown said Wednesday that salaries remain a concern for him. Officials also said they may consider charging the community groups that now use meeting space for free at the Children's Board building.

The Times reported last week that the Children's Board had failed to follow its own policies on no-bid contracts. In one case, the agency approved $201,825 over six years for Bamboo Kazoo, a production company whose owner is a friend of Panacek.

Earlier this month, the agency's board of directors, all volunteers, called an emergency meeting to discuss what some of them termed a publicity "crisis" due to the news reports.

"The administration has not gotten in front of this issue," said board member MaryEllen Elia, the Hillsborough schools superintendent.

Panacek said at that meeting that the agency could use help. "I do think we need outside assistance in crisis communication," she said.

Over the last two weeks, she has spoken several times by phone with Bendixen & Amandi International, a high-profile Miami firm, on how to handle the media. But she and Brown said Wednesday the agency had not paid Bendixen and has no plans to.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough Children's Board plans for audit, new contract procedures 04/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 11:52pm]
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