The financially troubled Community Aging and Retirement Services is abandoning attempts to renew a $4.3 million contract to help needy Pasco County senior citizens live in their homes independently.
The Hudson-based charity, known commonly as CARES, has provided the services for five decades. But, it is walking away after the contract administrator, the Area Agency on Aging, called for new financial safeguards and a 60-day probation period for CARES.
In an emergency meeting Wednesday, the CARES board of directors voted not to pursue a new six-year agreement scheduled to begin July 1. The charity had been the only agency to bid on the proposal in Pasco and the Area Agency on Aging’s board had been scheduled to formally approve the plan Monday. Instead, the agency will consider other options to serve Pasco’s elderly without interrupting services.
Among the possible successors is Pasco County government where staff members were preparing their own proposal to provide assistance to senior citizens.
“We’re putting a plan in place to make sure seniors are served,” said Ann Marie Winter, CEO of the Area Agency on Aging. “I’m disappointed that they (CARES) don’t have that same goal.
“The decision that they made is not in the best interests of seniors. To pull out with six weeks left before a new entity needs to be in place is irresponsible.”
Rick Soriano, chairperson of CARES’ board of directors, referred inquiries to CEO Jemith Rosa who was not available for comment. Rosa did not respond to an email or text from the Tampa Bay Times. Her cell phone was not accepting voice mail messages and a CARES employee said she was out of the office until Monday.
Rosa and Soriano blocked a Tampa Bay Times reporter from attending the emergency board meeting Wednesday. In an email to Winter Thursday, Rosa confirmed the CARES board decided to withdraw from the contract proposal. Rosa also indicated a concern about public relations and asked Winter to identify the source of her information about CARES’ decision.
“Due to the confidentiality and sensitive nature of any ongoing business operations, when it comes to staff and dissemination of sensitive information, any decision relating to this out in the community could cause harm to all involved and CARES,” Rosa wrote.
The $4.3 million contract is financed by the state of Florida. Called community care for the elderly, the program provides case management for low-income seniors and then arranges services they need, including meal delivery, house cleaning, transportation to medical appointments, adult day care and other resources. CARES has been the provider in Pasco since 1974, a year after the non-profit formed.
CARES said it provided in-home care to 1,452 people in 2022 and provided adult day care to 105 clients.
The Area Agency on Aging, however, wanted new financial and management standards for CARES after it run up a $1.2 million deficit in the elder care program and began cutting services by 50% through June 30.
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That wasn’t the only financial concern. In February, CARES sparked conflict of interest questions when it sold its Dade City senior center building to Soriano, the board chairperson. Last month, CARES board members and the director’s husband wrote personal checks to cover payroll because they worried the nonprofit would run out of money to pay employees. Meanwhile, a director, Pasco Sheriff’s Office Maj. James Mallo, resigned from the CARES board last month saying he was “concerned with the agency’s lack of discipline in its budgeting and expenditures.”
In response, a committee of the Area Agency on Aging recommended putting CARES on a 60-day probation after the new six-year contract begins. CARES would have been required to abide by a series of safeguards, including doing two-week follow-up assessments on clients and having at least 30 days’ cash reserves. Failure to do so could have triggered the Area Agency on Aging to revoke the contract.
CARES countered by withdrawing its bid to provide the services. That decision came even though Winter said her agency volunteered to provide technical assistance to help CARES meet the 60-day goals, “so we were very disappointed that this was the decision they made.”
CARES financial turmoil comes amid its bid to obtain additional state funding for its Wilton Simpson Cares Senior Center under construction on Fourth Street in Dade City.
“Obviously what’s coming out as it relates to CARES is concerning,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills. “The things we’re learning about right now — of course is concerning.”
Burgess obtained a $643,000 appropriation for CARES in the state budget to aid in building the 6,000-square-foot building on land donated by Simpson, the state’s commissioner of agriculture. If Gov. Ron DeSantis approves the expenditure, the money would be the second state allocation for the building. The state set aside $1.25 million for the construction in its 2021-22 fiscal year budget.
“We still have a need for a one-stop senior service center. Those services still need to be provided,” Burgess said. “So we look at it as the money following the building, not so much (following) the entity or organization.”
The appropriation request from CARES said the agency currently serves 400 frail senior citizens in east Pasco County and it anticipates adding 200 more. Pasco County has 170,768 persons over age 60. Thirteen percent, or more than 23,000 people, have incomes below the poverty level.
CARES decision to drop from the state program does not alter three other contracts it has with the Area Agency on Aging to arrange federally financed services for a separate group of senior citizens. Those services do not include case management and are limited to adult day care, homemaking and heavy-duty chore work.
CARES is one of 60 vendors providing services paid through the state program. Conceivably, the nonprofit can still be retained by the new contract-holder to do some of the care if clients choose to stick with CARES as their provider.
The $4.3 million contract sets aside $1 million for case management and $3.3 million to provide the home care and other resources to qualifying seniors.