CLEARWATER — Public job placement centers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties may soon be linked again, this time as a single entity, years after their connection dissolved in a torrent of scrutiny over fabricated numbers and misspent funds.
Next week, Pinellas County officials will consider taking a formal stance against the consolidation of CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay, the latter of which serves Hillsborough County. They may also request, if they can’t avoid the merger, that the Pinellas agency be allowed to take the lead in combining the two.
Rene Flowers, the Pinellas County commissioner who serves on the board of CareerSource Pinellas, raised the idea Thursday during a County Commission work session. She said she fears that a new jobs agency spanning Tampa Bay would prioritize larger, more populous Hillsborough County, and that job-seekers and employers in Pinellas could be left in the lurch.
She also worries that the consolidation, ordered last month by the state CareerSource Florida board but not finalized, would put the job centers in an unsettlingly familiar position, she said in an interview after the meeting.
CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay were once jointly managed by president and CEO Edward Peachey. Then, in 2018, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that the centers were inflating their job-placement figures, leading to high marks for the agency and better pay for Peachey and staffers. State and federal investigations followed, and last year the agencies were ordered to pay back a combined $4.3 million in taxpayer dollars. The two agencies separated in 2018.
“The concern is we’ve been down this road before,” Flowers said, likening the two-agencies-managed-as-one arrangement to the proposed consolidation. “Some of the guardrails, in my opinion, were not closed. I believe some of the processes were lacking, internal processes. And as a result of that, the focus was simply on, we’ve got to hit these numbers, we’ve got to hit these numbers.”
CareerSource Pinellas outperforms its counterpart across the bay in several key metrics, including its efficiency in placing people in jobs, Flowers said Thursday. In the state’s most recent round of letter-grading for the agencies, though, Pinellas received a B, compared to Tampa Bay’s A.
She also took issue with the report, by consulting firm Ernst & Young, that the state board used to determine consolidations. It didn’t seem to reflect input she and others had given, she said. She and CareerSource Pinellas’ interim CEO, Steve Meier, said they found flaws in some of the evidence it used in favor of viewing the two counties as a unified region. It cited the region as friendly to commuters between the counties, and one with a joint transportation agency, even though the dysfunctional Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority dissolved earlier this month.
“Roughly 90% of our customers are St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Lealman, Pinellas Park,” Meier told the County Commission. “The folks we serve are not commuting across the Bay, because they have transportation barriers. They have housing barriers.”
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Meier said in an interview he doesn’t think that Flowers’ suggestion to have the Pinellas agency lead a merger could happen. The consolidation would be overseen by a group with an equal number of representatives from Pinellas and Hillsborough, which would appoint the board of the new agency to hire its management staff.
He agreed, though, that Pinellas needs to advocate to protect the interests of its workers and employers, something that would become trickier when both counties’ job centers are pulling from the same pot of money.
“Hillsborough’s going to try to protect their interest as much as Pinellas is going to try to protect their interest,” he said. “There need to be some controls, some assurances in place that the funding that is allocated to Pinellas and to Hillsborough remains equitable to those counties.”
Meier would prefer for the consolidation not to happen at all. In his interpretation of the law, he said, Gov. Ron DeSantis could sign off on consolidation himself if either of the agencies was performing poorly or misusing funds. But neither of those is the case in Pinellas, he said, which would require both counties’ commissions to approve the change.
Flowers said she understood the law the same way. But even if the county commissions tried to block the consolidation, she said, she’s not sure DeSantis wouldn’t push it through anyway.
“He’s going to do whatever,” she said. “We have seen him do whatever.”