When the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County was created in 1946, it was the first countywide taxing authority in the nation dedicated exclusively to serving children and their families. JWB spends millions of property tax dollars every year on programs for children, usually with little controversy. However, recent events raise serious questions about who is calling the shots at JWB, public accountability and whether the best interests of Pinellas children and parents are being served.
• Why did JWB create a private agency called Pinellas Core Management Services to distribute public tax dollars to small nonprofits that provide programming in needy neighborhoods? Isn't distribution of tax dollars JWB's job?
• Why has JWB allowed that private agency to operate without proper oversight and outside the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law? When a public agency that operates in the sunshine delegates its authority, the sunshine follows that authority.
• Why is Pinellas Core Management Services firing the executive directors of some nonprofits, canceling their funding or taking over their programming without proof they were failing? And why do programs led by African-Americans seem to have been targeted?
• Why hasn't the JWB board of directors — most of them prominent Pinellas residents or officials — resolved these issues?
With a $68-million budget for 2008-2009, the Juvenile Welfare Board distributes a lot of public money to organizations that offer child care, tutoring, family counseling, mental health treatment, dropout prevention and more.
JWB gave just under $5-million to Pinellas Core Management Services to distribute to 10 small neighborhood-based nonprofits. But the agency's creation and its treatment of some of those nonprofits have stirred up a storm. The nonprofits' programs have been shut down, the reputations of their directors have been destroyed by vague allegations, questions of racism have arisen, and parents who depended on the nonprofits for afterschool care, tutoring and summer camps are upset.
Consider what happened to the African American Leadership Council, which served hundreds of children every year in a low-income Clearwater neighborhood. Pinellas Core Management Services and JWB vaguely insinuated that money had disappeared and that an "assault" on an adult had occurred there. No charges were filed, but JWB canceled its funding as did other funding organizations. The longtime director says his reputation is ruined.
The story is similar at other Pinellas centers. The organizations that ran those centers used to be independent nonprofits but said they were forced to go under the umbrella of Pinellas Core Management Services under threat that their substantial JWB funding would be canceled if they did not.
The person who issued that threat, they said, was Paul Lackey, a JWB employee who ended up in charge of the new agency for more than a year though he wasn't officially hired as its executive director until last November. Who was overseeing Lackey's handling of those tax dollars? Until now, Lackey has claimed he is not subject to the Sunshine Law, though he handles public funds at the behest of JWB.
Those ultimately responsible for this mess are JWB executive director Gay Lancaster and JWB's 11 board members — including county Commissioner Ken Welch, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen. The board meets today, and its members owe the public some answers.