For years, a group of small nonprofit organizations funded by tax dollars have helped scores of low-income children in Pinellas County.
The parents in some of the county's toughest neighborhoods have relied on these community organizations for everything from tutoring and learning how to use the computer to after-school care and summer camps.
Now, an agency created by the county Juvenile Welfare Board to help about 10 nonprofits with paperwork requirements so they could focus on the children is systematically putting some of them out of business, the leaders of the nonprofits say.
"None of the executive directors thought that this organization would in essence shut them down and that's what's happening," said Eric Green, the executive director of St. Petersburg's Everyone's Youth United, which had its funding pulled last year for alleged shoddy paperwork.
"I should have never taken the money from JWB. I learned the hard way that all money is not good money. And now my program that helped hundreds of Pinellas County children is gone."
In addition to Green's program, the African American Leadership Council in Clearwater's North Greenwood community and the Campbell Park Neighborhood Family Center in St. Petersburg are no longer providing services in their communities.
Foundation Village of Clearwater's South Greenwood also had its funding pulled and several nonprofit leaders have been fired or embroiled in turmoil as a result of the new entity's involvement.
Paul Lackey, a former Juvenile Welfare Board employee and executive director of Pinellas Core Management Services, says the claims leveled against him and PCMS are not true.
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Gay Lancaster, the Juvenile Welfare Board's executive director, said in a letter to the Times that Pinellas Core Management Services was created to "reduce inefficiencies, as well as increase the oversight among those small agencies."
That, Lancaster said, would provide "greater accountability for agencies and programs which utilize the public dollars which JWB allocates."
Lancaster also said that JWB had to make cuts because of the passage of Amendment 1.
"We were formed to save the funding," Lackey said. "The small organizations had a hard time meeting the standards set by JWB."
But a review of PCMS indicates that it, too, has struggled with some of the same issues it cited when pulling other organizations' funding.
According to a Dec. 15 Compliance & Quality Review report conducted by the JWB in October, Pinellas Core Management Services' contract manager and the chief financial officer did not have all written reports completed for the team to review and "special attention must be made to improving fiscal management so that subcontractors bills are paid in a timely manner."
The report also noted that PCMS does not have a full board of directors and its files were incomplete.
In addition, the Jan. 29, 2008, release of the organization's annual audit concluded that for the year ending Sept. 30, 2007, financial statements did not include $631,714 given by JWB and 31 checks totaling $51,532 were written during the first two weeks of October 2007, but dated and recorded as paid on Sept. 30, 2007. The person responsible for those shortcomings was fired, Lackey said.
Pinellas Core Management Services now receives $4.7 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year from the Juvenile Welfare Board, an independent special taxing district created through a referendum in 1946. The property tax dollars are to pay for programs for at-risk youth, and poor and working-class county families.
Of the nearly $5 million, $3.4 million is for the administrative services of the other nonprofits, $1 million is to operate a literacy program and $313,054 goes to family programming.
Jerry Hladky, 58, has worked as an accountant in the nonprofit community for 25 years, including three with some of the affected organizations. He said the Juvenile Welfare Board tried to "fix something that wasn't broken."
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In 1999, the Neighborhood Family Centers Coalition was incorporated by the Juvenile Welfare Board-funded nonprofits to serve as a support mechanism and as a tool to leverage additional funding.
In January 2007, Lackey approached Keith Knowles, executive director of the coalition, and informed him that JWB was going to disband the coalition and use its nonprofit status for an administrative entity for coalition members.
"Paul Lackey told us that if we didn't agree to the change, then future JWB funding would be in jeopardy," Knowles said.
Lackey said that he "didn't know anything" about Knowles' comments.
At a March 2007 emergency meeting, the coalition board was told that it would have input and oversight of the entity. Lackey said the new board would consist of 15 members: four picked by the JWB, three existing board members or members of the community and eight would come from the communities served.
The coalition directors relented and agreed to the arrangement.
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In April 2008, Judy Walker, executive director of Clearwater's Foundation Village, was stunned when she received a letter from PCMS that pulled her funding in part because of "contract compliance" issues.
"I was floored because we had never been out of compliance and we had 10 years of site visits to prove it," Walker said of Foundation Village. "But what was equally disturbing then, and still today, is no one really knows how community-altering decisions about taxpayers' money could be made with no oversight. We still don't even know if it's legal."
Lorina Padgett of Campbell Park received the same letter. She stopped providing services shortly after her funding was pulled last year. She said she called Lackey several times to get an explanation, but he never returned her calls.
"I truly understand it came down to dollar and cents," Padgett said. "But I'm beginning to feel that they are stating things about me personally that's ruining my reputation and they are leading people to believe that we were not performing. And we were never on an action plan."
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Lackey took control of the Neighborhood Family Centers Coalition from May 2007 until June 2008.
During that period, Knowles was fired, as was Mike Quinlivan, one-time executive director of the Lealman Neighborhood Family Center.
"I started questioning why our bills were being paid late and what happened to the funds from a grant we received from the Eckerd Foundation," Quinlivan said. "The next thing you know, an emergency meeting of the board was called on a Friday and I was fired. The locks to the center were changed the same night."
While Quinlivan blames PCMS, Lackey says his organization's board handled the dismissal.
In October, Lackey changed the name of the Neighborhood Family Service Centers Coalition to Pinellas Core Management Services. .
The next month, the PCMS board hired Lackey as its executive director.
Many of the affected nonprofit leaders are still trying to figure out how they lost control of the coalition.
"I'm saddened," Knowles said. "What has happened was not envisioned by the Neighborhood Family Centers Coalition. They were trusting the Juvenile Welfare Board to do the right thing. They were duped and I still don't know if everything that happened is legal."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org