TAMPA — Over the past three years, the Children's Board of Hillsborough County has lost millions of dollars in property tax revenue to the recession.
But in some ways, the public agency with 56 full-time employees doesn't look any different than it did in the boom years.
It has an executive director who makes $171,330 annually and five other administrators who make more than $100,000, including a communications director on medical leave since December.
The average employee salary is nearly $66,000. They work out of a $4 million building that has an Internet radio station, a lending library and a children's traveling art gallery with a $116,000 budget.
Why would an agency tasked primarily with overseeing public money reserved for child welfare organizations require that type of spending?
Many officials, past and present, say the board isn't just a middleman. They say its mission includes promoting healthy children, researching the success of the organizations it funds, and helping grass roots and faith-based groups become more financially stable.
"We used to say 'We're not just a funder,' and we're not," said chief executive Luanne Panacek, who took the top job 16 years ago.
But others say the little-known agency has let its attention wander from its primary purpose — getting money to the organizations that provide direct services to the county's most vulnerable children.
Former Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt, one of the board's earliest supporters, said she has grown disenchanted by the size of the staff — it has 20 more employees than the Hillsborough supervisor of elections — and a large headquarters in Ybor City. She said it's hard to tell what the agency does.
"They've built an empire of their own," she said, "and that was not the intent."
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Hillsborough voters created the Children's Board in 1988, empowering it to tax them and funnel that money toward child-welfare programs.
Backers of the initiative wanted to finance prevention programs for the youngest children, as opposed to the treatment programs financed by the county's child services department, recalled Colleen Bevis, one of the early activists and a former board member.
But the board, made up of appointees and representatives from public entities, including the county and School Board, quickly began picking up tabs for intervention and treatment programs because the needs were so great, she said.
That trend continued until this year, when the board began requiring nonprofits that want grant money to show how they would use it to serve babies and children up to age 8.
In 1988, initial estimates envisioned the agency's annual revenue to be around $10 million. Now it stands at around $35 million, nearly all of which — $30 million — comes from county property taxes.
In the boom years, personnel costs soared along with property tax revenue, from $2.4 million in 2002 (9.6 percent of the total budget) to just under $5 million in the current year. That's about 14 percent of the total budget.
Among the greatest beneficiaries has been Panacek.
In 2000, she made $90,219. By 2006, she was making nearly $165,000 — a 15 percent jump from the previous year — and by 2008 her salary had crept up to $180,336. She took a voluntary 5 percent pay cut the following year, and her pay has been flat since then.
Panacek, who has a doctorate and is a leader in a number of statewide children's policy groups, said she didn't ask for the largest pay raise the board of directors gave her. "I don't do this work for the money," she said.
The board has not laid off any employees because of the recession, but has frozen salaries. There are 11 unfilled positions.
Former board member Deborah Tamargo said she was often the lone skeptic when it came to staff raises during her tenure nearly a decade ago. Told about some of the current salaries and expenditures, she questioned how much has changed.
"We were not the life and death end, we were the clearinghouse," said Tamargo, a former state representative appointed to the board by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Tamargo said she also had misgivings about the board's decision to buy land on Palm Avenue and build a two-story, 30,000-square-foot office building, which was completed in 2004.
The final cost of the project was $4.1 million. The sale of the board's old office building financed $1.2 million. The rest came from a one-time tax increase on property owners. (State law prohibits children's service councils from borrowing money to pay for buildings.)
Board employees occupy the second floor of the building. The first floor doubles as meeting space for community groups as well as a family resource center, where people can take free classes, and as a lending library, which features a collection of books focusing on children and families.
Officials say 38,000 visitors use the building each year.
"The purpose of the building is as a gathering place," Panacek said.
Platt, the former commissioner, views the building as a waste of money. "There are already meeting spaces in libraries, numerous meeting spaces throughout the county," she said.
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Board officials have struggled over the years to explain the agency's mission — and to make the public aware of what it does.
Fewer than 30 percent of Hillsborough residents surveyed late last year had heard of the Children's Board. That was an improvement over a survey five years earlier, but still low for an agency that must return to voters for reauthorization in 2016.
In recent months, the Children's Board received some unwanted attention amid revelations that Panacek had let a devout Christian friend into the office on a Sunday to spread holy oil as part of a blessing. The private blessing confused employees, who found an unknown substance on their desks the next day and called police.
Marketing the board, officials say, hasn't been a funding priority, which is why they invested in cheaper communications, including the Internet radio station.
According to the board, the startup budget for the radio station was nearly $15,000, and there is currently about $18,500 dedicated to it. Staff members have produced shows about bullying and conducted interviews with other staff members and community leaders.
Officials also say the KidzCreate Gallery of Children's Art, a traveling exhibit of county children's artwork that began with a mix of private and public funding, is another example of how the board can promote itself — as well as overall children's issues.
Of the $116,000 budget, which includes the salary of the gallery director, $27,500 comes from a state grant and private foundation funds.
"It generates attention and a voice for issues more than anything we've done," Panacek said of the exhibit, which includes a central gallery in the Children's Board building.
Some communication efforts, however, have not yielded groundbreaking results. Four years ago, the board invested in a $45,000 "rebranding." That price tag included a change to the logo — the same silhouette of children, but transposed and turned from black to purple.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.