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Family center says it will pay $13,100 debt

During the next three years, the Greater Ridgecrest Area Family Center will repay more than $13,100 it owes to the Juvenile Welfare Board.

The agreement was unanimously approved Nov. 8 by the Juvenile Welfare Board after center leaders proposed paying up to $500 a month to repay the debt. The final payment is expected in January 2005.

The center is committed to paying back the money, said Greater Ridgecrest center board chairman Edward "BeBe" Hobson. He said he will start a fundraising initiative as soon as possible to secure the funds from Ridgecrest community leaders and from those who love the neighborhood.

But he said he was more concerned about the larger issue: the children of Ridgecrest.

He asked the board to consider using the $155,000 that would have gone to the family center and allowing other, well-established community agencies to bid for the funds and put them to good use.

"Some adults made some bad choices," Hobson said. "Whether it was paperwork or accounting, I would hate to see the children of Ridgecrest penalized and not provided services because of actions that adults made."

The request is under consideration, and the board is supportive of finding an alternate plan for the money in the Ridgecrest neighborhood, said Juvenile Welfare Board executive director Jim Mills. The Juvenile Welfare Board may discuss the matter in 60 to 90 days, he said.

Board member Howard Hinesley commended Hobson for his straightforward approach and his quick response to the matter.

"If he says he's going to do it, I know he'll do it," said Hinesley, superintendent of Pinellas schools.

Questions about management of the Greater Ridgecrest center arose in June when the Juvenile Welfare Board found numerous accounting irregularities and learned that financial documents had been shredded.

A sampling of reimbursements from Oct. 1, 2000, through June 15, 2001, showed that 75 percent of the documents were either incomplete or inaccurate, the board said. The center's director, Fran Philpot-Scott, resigned in June. The center closed two months later, and the Juvenile Welfare Board has not issued a new contract to the center.

Initially, as much as $24,000 had gone unaccounted for, but the figure was lowered after receipts were found for some expenses.

Despite the center's closing, the community might not lose the center altogether.

If the money is repaid within a year, the Greater Ridgecrest center could be considered for future Juvenile Welfare Board funding as early as six months after the final payment.