ST. PETERSBURG — The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County is demanding that the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center return about $25,700 of tax dollars that it says the center misspent.
Among the spending flagged is about $15,000 paid to three employees for unused vacation time, a perk that was not approved by Sanderlin's board of trustees. The payments resulted in executive director Lounall Britt and operations chief Delphinia Davis being forced to resign. Donna Welch, director of faith-based programs and wife of Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, was put on leave and fired a few weeks later by trustees, who declined to reveal the reason for her termination.
The request for repayment is another blow for the cash-strapped center, which not only lost its executive director but also a roughly $600,000 contract for a literacy program that was run by Welch as a result of the ensuing fallout.
And while $25,000 is a modest amount out of the center's roughly $1 million annual revenue, paying the debt will be a struggle. About 96 percent of its revenue comes from the Juvenile Welfare Board so the center must find a different source of funding.
"We can't let them use our own money to pay us back; that would be the same thing as us writing this off," said Chief Financial Officer Brian Jaruszewski. "To be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, we couldn't write off something like this."
Sanderlin provides a variety of education, health and job programs at its facility in Midtown. Trustee Ray Sanderlin, the nephew of Judge James B. Sanderlin after whom the center is named, said trustees are working on a plan to pay off the obligation.
"We don't have $25,000 sitting in a bank account somewhere," he said.
The unauthorized vacation payments came to light after Juvenile Welfare Board employees were asked by Sanderlin Treasurer Kurt Lenz to sift through Sanderlin's finances in 2018, Jaruszewski said. The center had been struggling to pay its expenses and there were other signs that its finances were on a downward trend, he said.
Sanderlin payroll records obtained from the Juvenile Welfare Board show that in December 2017 Britt was paid $2,238 and Welch received $3,803 for vacation.
Davis, who also serves on the St. Petersburg Housing Authority governing board, received four payments over a two-month period that added up to $7,924. That included one two-week pay period when she claimed five days of vacation pay along with 45 hours of sick pay.
The payments were made unbeknownst to the center's trustees, said Sanderlin.
The Juvenile Welfare Board's financial policy precludes organizations it contracts with from using tax dollars to pay their employees for unused vacation except when employees are leaving and then it is limited to two weeks.
Britt denied that she was paid for unused vacation.
"I was owed a lot, but I never received it; I never asked for it," she said.
Davis did not return calls seeking comment.
In a statement provided through her attorney Shirin Vesely, Welch said she never asked for a vacation payment. When she learned that board approval was required for the payment, she said she asked Davis and a Juvenile Welfare Board accountant what she needed to do to correct the matter. She never received any further instructions, she said.
"The Sanderlin Center suspended and later terminated my employment despite the fact their own internal investigation report recommended reinstatement and exonerated me of any wrongdoing," her statement said. "To this day, the Sanderlin Center has refused to provide an explanation for my termination."
The center also overspent by roughly $10,600 on its agreed repair and maintenance budget and used tax dollars to pay $30 in late fees.
"Those are disallowed costs," said Jaruszewski.
He is scheduled to meet with Sanderlin trustees next week to discuss repayment. One potential solution would be for the center to make a claim from its liability insurer, he said.
Ray Sanderlin, the trustee, said the center will find a way to pay back the money.
"We've had our challenges, but we're moving forward," he said. "We've got a new director and a new coordinator and are there to serve the community."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.