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CareerSource Pinellas bought a science center. Now the bill is coming due.

Berkeley Preparatory School students with Sue Thompson's fourth-grade-class enter the Science Center at CareerSource Pinellas' Tyrone center, 7701 22nd Ave N, in St. Petersburg in January during a STEM-focused field trip. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published May 23, 2018

In 2014, Tampa Bay jobs chief Edward Peachey sought to save the failing Science Center of Pinellas County.

He asked a small panel of CareerSource Pinellas board members to let him acquire the educational center for $100.

The Science Center, he said, had been working with manufacturing firms to develop training programs for adults in soldering and machining, jobs in high demand.

"It really fits in well with what we're trying to do here in Tampa Bay," Peachey told the CareerSource Pinellas executive committee in May 2014. "Obviously, we're going in there to make this work and kind of bring the Science Center back to life. It's fallen on hard times. It just needs an infusion of something new. We can bring that to the table."

Without discussion, the committee approved buying the 55-year-old building on seven acres in the Azalea neighborhood of west St. Petersburg. The agency's full board of a few dozen directors never voted on the purchase. It was never even brought before them.

Payroll records show $3.1 million in bonuses, incentives at CareerSource centers

The acquisition could soon haunt Pinellas County taxpayers.

Within a year, CareerSource Pinellas took out a $700,000 mortgage on the property and spent more than $400,000 on repairs and unpaid bills at the facility on 22nd Avenue N.

Pinellas County commissioners fear the county could be forced to cover the final mortgage balloon payment of $586,000 next year if the Science Center doesn't have the cash. CareerSource is restricted in how it can spend money it receives from the federal government.

CareerSource Pinellas leaders have already contacted their lender to discuss payment options. They say they could sell the property to cover the final bill.

Critics question how the Science Center — a once popular field trip and summer camp spot with few science exhibits but several fish tanks — fits into the agency's mission of helping connect people to employers.

CareerSource centers took credit for thousands of hires they had nothing to do with

Lenne Nicklaus, a CareerSource Pinellas board member who served as chair when Peachey bought the Science Center, said the facility has struggled since 2014.

"They have a right to be concerned," she said of local leaders. "I don't know what the solution is. Maybe it's time for us to talk to the County Commission. We thought it was good idea when we did it."

• • •

The Science Center was supposed to be a major expansion for CareerSource Pinellas.

The agency would get another office in St. Petersburg with computers and space to meet jobseekers. It would also delve into primary education, teaching children about robotics alongside adults training in manufacturing and information technology.

Tampa Bay jobs centers entered thousands of fictitious phone numbers in state network

But the state's two dozen CareerSource offices don't usually purchase property, and the acquisition alarmed county officials.

In August 2014, Pinellas County Administrator Mark Woodard asked Peachey about "the new direction and potential impact on Pinellas County." Peachey noted that CareerSource paid only $100 for the property, which is valued at $2.5 million.

Woodard then sent Peachey a list of questions, according to email records. Peachey instructed local CareerSource chief financial officer Sue Pagan to respond, but he changed her answers.

"The Science Center could no longer operate as they were out of funds," she wrote.

Peachey instead shared in an email that "leasing was not an option. Science Center Board was looking for a leadership change and wanted closer ties to workforce development."

Ultimately, the county is responsible for the jobs center and any costs it incurs. Woodard asked if taxpayers could be on the hook for any expenses from the purchase that CareerSource could not pay.

Peachey was clear in his answer: "Yes."

"However, I don't foresee or plan on incurring disallowed costs," he wrote. "Nor do I think we should manage our organization on that premise alone."

CareerSource Pinellas did not have the property inspected before the acquisition. Within weeks, agency leaders had identified a list of problems at the aging facility.

The jobs center paid more than $30,000 to settle unpaid tax and credit card bills not disclosed before the purchase, according to email records. As CareerSource officials tried to reconcile the finances, Peachey ordered his staff to open a separate revolving account for the Science Center and give him a credit card with a $10,000 spending limit.

They were supposed to watch over CareerSource. Many didn't show up.

In December 2014, CareerSource Pinellas took out a $700,000 mortgage to pay off an existing loan and to get operating dollars. The loan required a final payment of $586,000 in 2019. Peachey and the executive committee had already agreed to the terms by the time the full board voted on it.

The next year, the Science Center had to finance another $388,000 for a new air conditioner and other repairs, according to records.

Peachey set a fundraising goal of $400,000 in 2015. The agency solicited money from several of its board members and employees. Meeting minutes show the drive brought in tens of thousands of dollars, including at least $4,800 from staffers.

Mike Mikurak, the chair of the Science Center at the time of the sale, said the jobs center was aware of all liabilities, including the faulty air conditioner.

"There was nothing hidden in any way," he said.

"There is no question that we were struggling," said Mikurak, now a CareerSource Pinellas board member. "We had the option to sell it outright."

Nicklaus blamed Peachey.

"It is really hard to fundraise," she said. "The place was dilapidated. Ed set the goals too high."

• • •

For years, about 30,000 students learned everything from anthropology to zoology during field trips to the nonprofit Science Center.

It used to pitch itself as a premier science destination for kids but is no longer open to the public or the thousands of tourists who visit Pinellas. One side now operates as the jobs center that Peachey created in 2015.

Today, motorists pulling into the Science Center see a broken fence, a parking lot filled with potholes and mold covering parts of the outside walls.

The walls in the dimly-lit atrium are lined with faded posters of space shuttles. An empty popcorn machine rests on a counter, and shelves hold science trinkets for sale. Another entrance takes school children past jobseekers staring at computers in plastic office chairs.

From the beginning, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said, the Science Center seemed an odd match for CareerSource Pinellas, which receives millions in federal tax dollars to help people find work.

"It didn't fit into what a CareerSource center typically does," he said.

But Mikurak said Peachey wanted to teach people skills rooted in science and math, starting with teenagers.

"You start at the grammar and middle school level and work your way up," Mikurak said.

Earlier this year, CareerSource applied to open a charter school at the Science Center and said it could bring in about $340,000 in state funding. The agency later withdrew the bid.

As the Science Center struggled, it found a way to save money in 2015: Peachey offered free space to an aquarium business if the owner maintained the Center's 600-gallon touch tank. Several other tanks resemble the saltwater aquariums found in homes.

Daniel Calvo, owner of Little Oceans Aquarium Specialists, said Peachey was worried about paying a $1,400 estimate to repair the tanks. Instead, Calvo said, Peachey countered with "$400 and free space to run my business."

"There is no contract," Calvo said. "It's between Ed and myself. I maintain all the aquariums in the facility. He has never asked me to pay. They let me have the space."

Asked last month about the arrangement, CareerSource Pinellas interim director Jennifer Brackney said Calvo provides an "in-kind sponsorship" to clean the 600-gallon touch tank at the Science Center.

"For convenience, he stores a few items in the closet," Brackney said.

• • •

For more than a year, the Pinellas County Commission has asked for Science Center financial records but Peachey never responded, commissioners say.

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked Pinellas County inspector general Hector Collazo to audit the "acquisition and operation" in January 2017. Collazo said his office lacked the authority unless CareerSource asked them to run an audit.

Commissioners have increased their scrutiny of the purchase since CareerSource Pinellas and its sister agency, CareerSource Tampa Bay, came under state and federal investigations this year for possibly reporting inflated hiring numbers to the state.

A CareerSource Pinellas finance committee weeks ago ordered Brackney to explore options to pay the final mortgage bill — including the possibility of selling the property.

Mikurak said CareerSource should keep the Science Center, which he called a "gem," but if it has to be sold, he noted the property is appraised for substantially more than the final mortgage payment.

Property appraiser Mike Twitty said it isn't often that a property with seven acres goes on the market in Pinellas. The land could accommodate about 20 single-family homes or several small apartment buildings.

But selling a big institutional property, Twitty said, is different than selling a home.

"When you make these properties available," he said, "they could sit on the market awhile."

READ PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Amid CareerSource controversy, allegations of a love affair, big raises and family favoritism at the top

Sheriff says someone at CareerSource forged his signature

Pasco officials say CareerSource Tampa Bay blocked county from federal funds with 'unethical' grant application

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

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