TALLAHASSEE — State officials said they will now begin competitively bidding contracts issued by the Division of Blind Services after a Times/Herald report found examples of possible taxpayer waste and poor vendor oversight.
The Times/Herald reported this week that no-bid contracts awarded to private vendors are so loosely worded that the groups could charge $58 dollars per hour for drive time to a blind person's house or more than $2,000 for a brief phone call.
Monitoring the vendors is also lax, the Times/Herald found. Although the law requires state workers to monitor all 16 providers through yearly unscheduled visits, the state visited one vendor last year, documents show.
The state division with a $52 million budget has largely privatized its support programs as a way to save money and help 11,000 blind Floridians.
"Florida Statutes exempt the Division of Blind Services from seeking competitive bids to contract with nonprofit entities to provide community rehabilitation programs," wrote Pam Stewart, who oversees the Division of Blind Services as interim education commissioner. "However, as part of the governor's agency-wide initiative to save money in contracting, the Department of Education has begun the process of requiring competitive bidding for these services."
The biggest vendors, all nonprofit, include LightHouse of Central Florida, Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, Lighthouse of Pinellas and Miami Lighthouse for the Blind.
Blind Services director Joyce Hildreth said she supported the decision to competitively bid division contracts.
"It is the department's intent to competitively bid out these services," Hildreth wrote in a statement. "I am in total support of this position, and will be taking action to strengthen our contract and performance monitoring activities."
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has pushed for more authority to enforce contracts and not renew those that do poorly in audits. Contract reform is long overdue, he said.
Atwater, who signs the contract checks, has audited three of the Division of Blind Services' contracts and found them deficient. But Gov. Rick Scott has retained contract oversight under his office, and Atwater lacked the authority to take action.
"Your story certainly clearly highlights the problems and flaws in the state's contracting system that I have brought to the forefront since taking office," Atwater said. "This is yet another example that proves the need for reforms that promote greater accountability and transparency in grants and contracts, and ultimately protect taxpayer dollars from fraud, waste and abuse."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (850) 323-0353 or [email protected]