TAMPA — Citing recent reports of questionable no-bid contracts and poor staff morale, Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to request that state legislators order fiscal and management audits of the taxpayer-funded Children's Board of Hillsborough County.
"There have been major, major questions of the Children's Board," said Commissioner Les Miller, who proposed the audits.
The nearly $30 million agency that finances child welfare programs has been under scrutiny in recent months, starting with the revelation that chief executive officer Luanne Panacek let a friend in after hours to spread holy oil and "bless" the public building.
A series of Tampa Bay Times reports later showed problems with how agency executives handled at least $450,000 in no-bid contracts, including two that went to a former Children's Board employee. More recently, about 15 staffers wrote emails to the board's chairman, Chris Brown, complaining about low morale and levying accusations that top executives doctored documents.
Amid the reports, Miller asked county attorneys earlier this month to research whether commissioners had the authority to order the audits. The answer was no, since the Children's Board is an independent taxing district created by county voters in 1988.
Miller said Wednesday that he talked to his contacts in Tallahassee who told him another approach is to ask for audits by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, whose membership consists of legislators appointed from both the House and Senate. Two Hillsborough senators currently serve on the committee, Arthenia Joyner and Jim Norman.
A separate proposal by Commissioner Sandy Murman asked county attorneys to investigate how commissioners could gain some measure of control over Children's Board finances. Murman said that might mean state legislation requiring Children's Board tax dollars flow first through county coffers. Her motion also passed unanimously.
"I think, long term, that may be a solution," Murman said. "It's all about accountability. We want to protect our children and we don't want anything to happen to our Children's Board … (but) we have to balance the independence with accountability."
Under a new state law, the property tax that finances the Children's Board comes up for voter reauthorization in 2016.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner is the county representative on the agency's board. He did not comment about the recent reports but suggested any state inquiries take into account a private audit of staffing and morale issues already under way at the Children's Board.
He also noted that the limited financial audits that the Children's Board pays for each year have been good.
"The key has been checks and balances within the agency itself," Beckner said.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who used to be the county's representative to the Children's Board, said more in-depth audits were long overdue.
"It's an organization which does a lot of good work," he said. "It's highly protective of itself."
He said, for instance, that Children's Board officials once tried, unsuccessfully, to get rid of a citizens advisory board. Sharpe also said the Children's Board's work often overlaps with county services.
"They can't just operate on this island unto themselves," Sharpe said.
In 2007, Sharpe requested taht the county auditor at the time, Jim Barnes, look into a number of allegations about questionable expenditures at the Children's Board. Barnes' brief report said most of the allegations lacked merit and that he had come away "very impressed" by Children's Board officials.
A Times request to the county for Barnes' documentation on the report turned up a single folder containing his interview notes with Children's Board officials, along with the agency's budget documents and brochures.
Brown, a Hillsborough sheriff's attorney who volunteers as the Children's Board chairman, said Wednesday he does not have a problem with the County Commission's decision. He was one of the board members who had been pushing for the organizational audit now under way.
"If any other audits can provide valuable information for this agency, I welcome it," Brown said.
After Miller first floated his proposal for an audit earlier this month, Panacek sent a letter to commissioners in which she said the Children's Board had put in place a new review team to look at the agency's bidding practices. She also downplayed the Times reports, saying the agency had not spent the entire amount allowed under the $450,000 in no-bid contracts.
"Only $200,000 was spent across five years, which averaged out to $40,000, a year or about one 10th of 1 percent of our annual budget," she wrote. "I realize that any money spent on a contract without following procedure is inappropriate. This issue has been dealt with, but I think it was made to appear more scandalous and salacious than it actually was."
Panacek did not return a message Wednesday passed through agency spokesman Dan Casseday.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.