The chairman of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County said the public agency should have applied more oversight to a taxpayer-funded reading program led by the wife of Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch.
The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that Donna Welch spent $2.6 million in the past five years with scant documentation, minimal oversight and no tracking mechanism when she bought supplies and other services.
Brian Aungst Jr., a Clearwater lawyer, said blame cannot be solely cast on Welch because the Juvenile Welfare Board approved the purchases, which included thousands to host year-end parties for kids.
“That system didn’t have proper oversight to provide accountability for the dollars,” Aungst said. “The Juvenile Welfare Board has the fiduciary responsibility.”
The program also paid rent, phone and Internet bills for eight churches to host classrooms. A church operated by Welch’s relatives received some of the highest amounts of money the past two years.
Aungst said some spending troubled him because the program’s purpose is to help improve reading skills for poor children in south Pinellas County. The board announced last month it has no way to measure results.
Now, more oversight is coming. The agency signed a two-year contract in October for an accounting firm to examine budgets, expenses and payrolls at the eight neighborhood centers that receive tax dollars from the Juvenile Welfare Board to run various programs, Aungst said.
Aungst said he is confident the new arrangement will protect tax dollars. He doesn’t know what more the board could do about prior spending but said the “responsible” YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg now runs the program.
Welch led the program from the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center.
In June, it came under fire after the Juvenile Welfare Board discovered that she and two other leaders collected a total of $16,000 in improper payouts of unused vacation hours. Two leaders resigned, but Sanderlin trustees cleared Welch in an investigation. The trustees later terminated Welch but would not cite a reason. Amid the turmoil, the Juvenile Welfare Board moved the program to the YMCA.
Last month, the Times reported how Ken Welch lobbied more than half of the Juvenile Welfare Board members to hire another nonprofit to take over the reading program. That organization pledged to hire Donna Welch to lead the program.
Instead of selecting a nonprofit, the board gave staffers six months to develop a program that could measure results and expand countywide.
Moving forward, Aungst said the board must decide if it should partner with schools and recreation centers instead of paying for rent and other services at churches.
The Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME said the Juvenile Welfare Board should have scrutinized Welch’s spending when turmoil erupted months ago. The community, he stressed, needs the program.
Williams, who wrote a letter two months ago in support of Welch running the program, said nobody at the Juvenile Welfare Board talked about the way Welch spent public money. He fears the program could be eliminated because of sloppy record keeping.
“This is taxpayer money,” he said. “We owe them transparency and accountability.”
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.