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St. Petersburg's James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center leaders step down

ST. PETERSBURG — Two top employees have resigned and another is on unpaid leave at the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center over questions about unauthorized payouts they received for unused vacation pay, officials said.

Lounell Britt, executive director for the nonprofit that runs the center, and Delphina Davis, its operations chief, stepped down this week. Donna Welch, the director of faith-based programs and wife of Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, was suspended for two weeks without pay.

All three received payouts for unused vacation pay totaling $16,000, said the head of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, which provides much of the center's funding. A breakdown of how much each employee received was not available.

Britt authorized a change in policy to allow payment for unused vacation time without seeking approval by Sanderlin's board of trustees, said Marcie Biddleman, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

The Sanderlin center offers a variety of education-, health- and job-related programs at the center in Midtown. The financial support it receives from the Juvenile Welfare Board comes largely through tax dollars.

Kurt Lenz, a volunteer board member and treasurer at the Sanderlin center, said in a statement that trustees learned about "some irregularities related to finance and personnel matters" and are working to resolve the issues.

"Our commitment, as a nonprofit governing Board, is that the funding provided to us from multiple sources is appropriately expended in order to strengthen the lives of children and families in our community," the statement said. "We will continue to work closely with the Juvenile Welfare Board, as one of our largest funders, including their offer to provide technical assistance and support."

Britt, in a brief phone interview, said, "I don't have any details."

"Talk to anybody you want," Britt told the Tampa Bay Times. "I quit."

Davis, who is also the board chairwoman at the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Welch declined to comment. Her husband said he could not discuss the matter until he learned more details.

Biddleman said she and other Juvenile Welfare Board employees have been working for more than a month to help figure out Sanderlin's finances. The center is already having trouble paying $30,000 to $40,000 in expenses and the vacation payouts will add to its financial challenges, Biddleman said.

Though many government agencies, including Pinellas County, and some private companies allow payouts for unused vacation hours, such a policy never went before Sanderlin trustees, Biddleman said.

Biddleman said Donna Welch was placed on leave out of an abundance of caution because she collected a payment for unused hours. She said Welch could return to work sooner if the board determines she played no role in enacting the policy.

"They have to figure out her involvement," Biddleman said.

The troubles the Sanderlin center is facing will not affect the programs it provides, even if it requires more financial help from the Juvenile Welfare Board, Biddleman said.

"The Sanderlin center will continue to operate," she said.

The center had financial troubles several years ago.

In 2014, Kimberly Sue Ross, the program manager responsible for handling its budget, paying bills and supervising administration, was sentenced to six years in prison for grand theft after misspending more than $200,000 in four years.

She spent the money on furniture, fast food, jewelry, an Xbox, bowling, Netflix, a hair salon, cable TV, flowers, Adventure Island, a pet store, and a flea market, prosecutors said at the time.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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