The Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board receives property taxes and distributes public money to children's services throughout the county. Yet it created another outfit that assumed some of those responsibilities, operated in secret and starved some independent service providers. Now the director of that shadowy agency has resigned amid concerns raised by a critical audit. The welfare board should pull the plug on this failed experiment this week and resume responsibility for money and oversight taxpayers assumed it had never given away.
The welfare board and its executive director, Gay Lancaster, may have been well-intended two years ago when they created Pinellas Core Management Services to distribute county tax dollars to more than a dozen small nonprofits offering programs in needy neighborhoods. The idea was that Core Management would perform bookkeeping and personnel functions for the nonprofits so they could focus on serving children. But it was botched from the start.
Core Management was set up as a private nonprofit corporation independent of the welfare board. Its director, Paul Lackey, had been a welfare board staff member and functioned virtually on his own for more than a year. Core Management was supposed to have its own 15-member board of directors; it has only three members. Lackey contended his private agency was not subject to government-in-the-sunshine laws, though 90 percent of its revenues come from property taxes and it functions on behalf of the public welfare board. That should never have been allowed.
Core Management far exceeded the purpose of an administrative services organization. It became the employer of those who worked for the small nonprofits and threatened to withhold their funding to manipulate them. It even fired some of their employees. A wedge of hostility and suspicion has been driven between the welfare board and some nonprofits.
All of this happened under the nose of the welfare board, which shares an office building with Core Management. But even the welfare board claims to be surprised by some of the findings in the recent audit, including a bank account overdraft of more than $207,000, a bank line of credit of $150,000 and a mysterious loan of $35,000 from the private business of one of Lackey's employees.
Lancaster says she wants to get Core Management back on track. But a new director will not resolve the fundamental problems. And it's the welfare board, not some separate group, that citizens hold accountable for wisely spending their taxes on children's programs.
The Juvenile Welfare Board should be looking for ways to strengthen its bonds with residents and service providers. It should not be delegating its responsibilities to some independent middleman. When the welfare board meets Thursday, it should cancel its contract with Core Management Services and resume direct responsibility for steering money and help to small nonprofits.