Betsy Brown's eyes darted from corner to corner, from the swing set to the carousel. Her hands rested in her lap as she sat beneath the pavilion, tracking 6-year-old Kiara Flores as best she could.
"She doesn't know how to walk," Brown said, watching the girl's ponytail flow behind her as she dashed back across the playground.
In nine years as an Adults Mentoring Children volunteer, Brown, 75, has never had a girl this active. She passed up tickets to a Rays game, knowing that Kiara wasn't interested in sitting and watching while others played. Instead, she'll take Kiara to places like the pool or park, places she wouldn't — and couldn't — visit it if weren't for the program.
But in the face of budget cuts, plummeting property values and a corresponding drop in revenue for the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board, the program that kept Kiara running is expected to come to a halt Sept. 30 after more than 30 years of service.
At an annual cost of $333,439, the mentoring program directed by Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services was valuable to the mentors and the 200 children they served each year, said Lisa Sahulka, the board's director of contract management, finance and research. But it was also redundant, since the Big Brothers Big Sisters program provides a similar service.
In a proposal she described as "very conservative" and crafted out of "concern about the political and economic climate of Florida," Sahulka recommended last week that the JWB raise its millage rate from this year's $0.7915 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value to $0.8337. That would be $83.37 for a home valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption. Since home values have declined, the increased millage rate would still lower taxes by about $16 for the average taxpayer, Sahulka said.
The proposal would return the program budget to its 2005 level and allow for a $1.8 million emergency spending fund in 2012-13 — a cushion Sahulka said a 0.7915 rate would not provide once the $18 million fund from three years ago runs dry.
But it would do nothing to alleviate a $9 million budget shortfall, or to spare room in the $56 million budget for Adults Mentoring Children and three truancy programs that, at a combined cost of about $766,000, are designed to give truant youths assistance and a second chance.
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The JWB is also eliminating a $350,000 program that provides case management and family support services to young people who are arrested and detained for the first time.
Other past recipients like Carlton Manor, a therapeutic group home for dozens of emotionally disturbed boys, will survive on alternative sources of funding.
"The picture could be slightly more rosy," Sahulka conceded at the JWB meeting.
As director of the Adults Mentoring Children program, Nancy Friedman could say the same. Her office's JWB-funded violence prevention program for Pinellas County schools was saved, although she remains unsure about her staff's future.
"I hope no one loses their job," she said, "but I couldn't really speak to that at this point."
In explaining the elimination of funding, Sahulka said the JWB has taken a results-driven approach to identifying which programs produce the highest returns.
No data have been collected to gauge Adults Mentoring Children's effectiveness. But Friedman said the life lessons seniors impart to the at-risk youths in the program will prove valuable.
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As Kiara asks for a sip of water, Brown hears proof that her time is well spent. It's the magic word: Please.
The final budget and millage rate won't be finalized until September, but the time for saying please has passed. Earlier this month, a notice went out to this year's 121 mentors, informing them that the end is all but imminent. The program is no longer matching children with volunteers.
Without Adults Mentoring Children, Brown said, it might just be time for her to move back to New York. She would stay and continue to meet with Kiara, but she worries about the liability of not being partnered with a program.
"I hate it," she said of the program's demise. "You just feel as though this should be available to her."
C. Ryan Barber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8505. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/cryanbarber.