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Major donor cuts funds for North Greenwood betterment

CLEARWATER — The African American Leadership Council's leader remains adamant that all the money he received from his largest donor went to the betterment of the North Greenwood community, especially its children.

But the Juvenile Welfare Board still is concerned about how the council kept its books and will not be restoring the $300,000 budgeted for the next fiscal year. The contract ended Sunday.

The funding earmarked to pay for programming at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center on Douglas Avenue will remain in the community and be managed by Pinellas Care Management Services Inc., the entity that manages some of the Juvenile Welfare Board's smaller organizations.

"I don't have any evidence that they were stealing money," said Gay Lancaster, the Juvenile Welfare Board's executive director. … "We are simply taking a very business approach to this."

Lancaster said as the "stewards of public money" the Juvenile Welfare Board is "extremely careful" and "sloppy record-keeping" will not be tolerated.

An auditor was hired to take a closer look at the council's record-keeping after a complaint was made at a Welfare Board meeting in July. The auditor noted four areas of concern, including the lack of documentation on expenditures.

After the council's Juvenile Welfare Board funding was suspended, the city of Clearwater followed suit. It pulled its funding and its contract with the council to use the King Center.

The city is expected to enter into an agreement with Pinellas Care Management Services for the use of the King Center. PCMS also will get the $88,000 that was to go to the council and will manage all the center's programming.

"PCMS has assured us that they will provide the same level of programing as the AALC," said Bill Horne, Clearwater city manager.

Lancaster said Jai Hinson, the founder of Life Force Cultural Arts Academy, will operate the programming at the King Center. The $300,000 allocated to the council in the Welfare Board's upcoming budget will go to that effort. Life Force, a respected organization in the North Greenwood community, was incorporated in 1997.

"We are committed to continue and provide resources and services to the North Greenwood community," Lancaster said.

The African American Leadership Council's founder and executive director Bilal Habeeb-ullah is still determined to assure the community he sought to improve knows that he did not steal money from it.

But Habeeb-ullah referred questions to his attorney, Cory Person of Tampa.

"This is about Mr. Habeeb-ullah's integrity and the integrity of his program," Person said. "We still believe that we were not given the opportunity to respond and continue to pull together documentation to support our position that nothing was done wrong."

In its final report issued Sept. 12, the auditor said: "We found some expenses that were questionable either based on the payee, invoice provided, incomplete or lack of supporting documentation."

Habeeb-ullah met with Lancaster for the first time last week about the situation. In an effort to clear his name, the council is providing documentation to the Juvenile Welfare Board. Lancaster said no decision has been made as to whether the council could receive funding in the future.

Habeeb-ullah and Person are still frustrated that they were never given an opportunity to speak with Pinellas Care Management Services before the board pulled the council's funding.

In a Friday rebuttal to the findings, Person said that in the past the Welfare Board, which in the past reimbursed the council after money had been spent, "never required any type of additional documentation for the payment of student participant stipends/scholarships, other than a check stub."

He also said the board "never required the submission of utility bills, insurance premium payments, or documentation relating to employee salaries."

Those were the issues highlighted in the findings.

Pinellas Care Management Services was organized in 2007. The intent was to have one organization handle everything from audits to payroll of those who received Welfare Board funding.

The Juvenile Welfare Board is funded by county property tax dollars. There was some backlash to Pinellas Care Management Services from some of the small nonprofits but at a March 7, 2007, emergency meeting, Juvenile Welfare Board agencies were told they would be a part of the Pinellas Care board.

There was to be 15 members on the board, four picked by the Welfare Board, three existing board members or members of the community, and the other eight from the communities served. Currently, there are three members on the board. One of those members just resigned citing a conflict with Pinellas Park and another was recently added.

None of the members are members of the nonprofits that the Juvenile Welfare Board serves. It is that board that decided to pull the council's funding.

Lancaster said that there was an inherent conflict with having members of agencies who received their funding from the Welfare Board on the Pinellas Care Management Services board.

Clearwater city leaders also are set to give Pinellas Care Management Services control of the contract it had with the YWCA of Tampa Bay to manage the city's Hispanic Outreach Center.

Pinellas Care will get the $1-a-year lease of the building from the city and the $73,000 in grants the Police Department has scored to help with outreach efforts.

Clearwater City Council member Carlen Peterson is concerned because she said no one knows who is making the decisions with the Pinellas Care board. She questioned the board's diversity and understanding of the communities being served.

That same board pulled the funding from Lorina Padgett's Campbell Park program in St. Petersburg. Padgett is still providing services but said she was concerned with how the process occurred.

"I truly understand it came down to dollars and cents," Padgett said. "But I'm beginning to feel that they are stating things about me personally that's ruining my reputation and leading people to believe that we were not performing. We were never on an action plan."

Lancaster said it's a different day with Juvenile Welfare Board funding.

"We are being good stewards of public money," she said. "Sloppy bookkeeping or anything else, the standards are high now and we are going to insist upon those high standards."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Major donor cuts funds for North Greenwood betterment 09/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 1:53pm]

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