CLEARWATER — After months of frustration and embarrassment, Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board on Thursday killed off an agency it created two years ago in hopes of stretching tax dollars and easing administrative headaches.
The agency was designed to help JWB-funded neighborhood groups keep their books straight. But instead it turned into a heavy-handed watchdog that shut down some grass-roots groups, threatened others and bred mistrust between the welfare board and the very people it relies on for programming.
"It would be wrong to say we were asleep at the switch,'' JWB executive director Gay Lancaster told her board of directors. "It would be right to say we had high expectations and certainly those expectations were not met.''
At issue is an agency called Pinellas Core Management Services (PCMS) and its relationship to family centers and churches that tutor and counsel children in some of the county's poorest neighborhoods.
While respected in the community, these small groups sometimes struggle with accounting and documentation. In one case, a group turned in ATM slips with hand-written notes about how the money was spent.
So in 2007, the JJWB told senior employee Paul Lackey to set up PCMS to take over bookkeeping, payroll, group insurance and other back-office functions for the neighborhood groups.
But the solution became the problem.
Lackey removed JWB funding from some neighborhood groups and threatened others without offering traditional corrective action plans. He was so late paying bills that some groups had their power temporarily shut off. He tried to operate outside Florida's Open Records Law and keep his records private. According to JWB staff, he would tell them one thing and his board of directors another.
Lancaster and her JWB staff were trying to correct some of these problems when an audit of PCMS released last week ended all further negotiation.
It showed that PCMS was worse at handling money and cash flow than many of the neighborhood groups it was supposed to supervise. Besides bounced checks and late bills, one employee ended up lending $35,000 to the agency at the end of the fiscal year, when books need to be balanced.
On Thursday, the JWB's board, composed of prominent public officials and gubernatorial appointees, voted to dismantle PCMS and have JWB staff take over its duties for the time being.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and several other board members said they see this move as temporary until a new support agency can be set up. Otherwise, JWB will stray into a gray area of both funding programs and carrying out program duties.
"I'm afraid we are going to be right back in the position of this board dealing with these problems rather than dealing with them in the community,'' McCabe said.
In a side matter, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch apologized to fellow JWB board members for not revealing that his wife, Donna, worked for Lackey and PCMS until the St. Petersburg Times disclosed it.
Her salary is paid by the Eckerd Family Foundation, which routes some of its funding for neighborhood groups through PCMS. She has a history of working with children in St. Petersburg's Childs Park neighborhood, Welch said, and Lackey told him there was no conflict.
Several board members and the board's attorney assured Welch they had no problems with the relationship.
The PCMS board will meet today to agree to dissolve, said its president, Elise Minkoff.
Unless Eckerd can quickly figure out a new way to route its money to neighborhood groups, that would mean that Donna Welch would work directly for JWB.
In that case, Ken Welch said, either his wife will quit her job or he will resign from the JWB board and the County Commission will have to appoint a new representative.