It's amazing what a little adult supervision can do for a vital but wayward public agency like the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. Just three weeks into the job as interim CEO, Pam Iorio, Tampa's former mayor, has cut the bloated staff, instilled a new sense of purpose and realigned the budget to spend more on children's services. While the turnaround is not complete, it could not have started sooner or be headed in a better direction.
Iorio was the right choice to succeed Luanne Panacek as chief executive after a series of reports by the Tampa Bay Times' Jodie Tillman and a subsequent audit found the agency in crisis due to sloppy management and poor morale. While she is serving in a caretaking capacity, Iorio's demanding nature and decisive management style are exactly what the agency needs to wake up and change course.
Iorio laid off 15 employees this month, flattening the chain of command while freeing up $1.4 million that will be redirected from overhead to child welfare programs. The Hillsborough agency has the highest overhead costs in the state, and it spends a smaller portion of its budget on children's programs than any of the other six comparable local agencies statewide. Iorio's plan will get the services budget closer to where it should be. She also is fine-tuning a process for shifting more money toward contractors who can show they are providing the most bang for the buck.
These are long overdue changes for an agency that gets the vast majority of its budget from local property tax revenue. Iorio is also working to change the culture at the Children's Board, reinforcing among its 40 employees the importance being ethical, open and committed to public service. These are values the former mayor instilled in her two terms at City Hall, and it is good to see her take this show on the road.
The agency still has a lot to do to restore public confidence in the run-up to the referendum in 2016 on whether to maintain the operation. Iorio is pushing the agency in the right direction, but the governing board needs to take it from here.
Its first task is to hire a capable, permanent director through a search this fall. It needs to rethink how to best focus its limited resources at a time of economic uncertainty and enormous need. It also needs to look at new partnerships with public and private agencies to better leverage funding — and to raise the agency's profile. Local residents should be much more familiar with the agency's good work, and much more involved in ensuring that the operation is meeting essential local needs. But the turnaround has started, and the expectations should only rise from here.