1. Florida Politics

Florida agency for the blind hires new director, ends no-bid contracts

Published Jun. 22, 2013

The state's Division of Blind Services has hired a new director and installed tough rules for bidding out contracts, pushing back on nonprofit groups that previously could charge taxpayers $2,000 for a phone call and $58 per hour to drive to a blind person's house.

The changes virtually eliminate the free rein by groups that get state dollars to serve blind people, banning them from contacting Blind Services staff about contracts and revising rules to prevent the state from getting overcharged.

Now anybody can bid for the opportunity to provide services, and an impartial contract specialist will decide who offers the best services for the lowest cost. Previously, only Lighthouse for the Blind groups and a few other vendors had access to no-bid Blind Services contracts, and critics say the groups named their own price.

"Change is always hard, especially when there's money involved," said Joe Follick, spokesman for the Department of Education, which oversees Blind Services. "But under this new process, people will know more about where taxpayer dollars are being spent, and they'll know that they're getting the best deal."

The Division of Blind Services' mission is to help blind Floridians manage their disability from infancy to old age. Operating on a $52 million budget, the division pays vendors to train blind people for everyday tasks from using a cane to pouring water without spilling.

In November, the Tampa Bay Times reported that director Joyce Hildreth, a veteran employee of Lighthouse Central Florida, oversaw the allocation of millions in taxpayer dollars to her former employer and other groups.

Critics called the contracts wasteful and exorbitant, and state documents showed the organizations received little oversight.

Gov. Rick Scott and chief financial officer Jeff Atwater called the situation unacceptable. Hildreth was fired.

Robert Doyle takes over as director in mid July. He currently leads the blind services program in Delaware and is not affiliated with any groups that receive money from Florida for services.

"I want to come there and be objective and make sure we have contracts in place that are reasonable," Doyle said Thursday, adding that the Governor's Office warned him about the division's troubles during the interview process. "We're going to do everything possible to make our services as efficient as possible."

Elly du Pre, president of the Florida Association of Agencies Serving the Blind, the trade group for the vendors, said the changes make everyone uneasy, but the vendors are trying to abide by the new rules.

"Writing a (bid application), especially if you've never done it before, is kind of overwhelming, really. But the whole state does it, not just us," she said. "We're a strong group, and we'll have to go through it because that's what the governor wants. So we're doing it."

Mary Ellen Ottman, a former Blind Services employee, said she thinks blind people receive fewer services than they should for the amount of money the state delivers. She hopes the changes will result in better job training for blind people, a wider variety of rehabilitation opportunities and more access to equipment, among other benefits.

She quit in September after trying to raise red flags for state officials.

"The private agencies are not going to be able to get their way anymore," she said. "They've lost the battle, and to that I say, 'Yahoo!' "

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.