WorkNet contract questioned by state
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
The state's workforce policy group is reviewing a $220,000 grant to WorkNet Pinellas, the county's welfare and job placement agency, for a controversial faith-based contract because of concerns it has about the program.
Whether the grant would be canceled remained a question Wednesday. Workforce officials deferred comments to Curtis Austin, Workforce president, and he was out of the office and could not be reached.
The state approved the grant, but then told WorkNet officials that they are reconsidering the award, said Ed Peachey, WorkNet's new interim director.
"We haven't drawn down the funds yet because if they don't approve the program, then they're going to want the money back," Peachey said.
The biggest issue appears to be whether the contract would help enough people for the money spent. State regulators say the faith-based contract should help at least 150 people, not the 85 that WorkNet had planned, Peachey said.
"We have a contractor who's two weeks into the contract, and now we're saying, are you going to give us the money for the contract?" Peachey said.
Assistant Administrator Gay Lancaster said WorkNet and other county officials will try to resolve the problems fast so they can get the grant money.
"We are going to work as quickly as we can so as not to endanger any services for clients," she said.
WorkNet also may have to return more than $300,000 from two other grants to the state because the agency didn't use the money, Peachey said.
The problem with the faith-based grant, which became controversial last fall after it was awarded through an improper bidding process, was only part of an eventful day at WorkNet, which has been dogged by a series of management crises since last fall.
Wednesday also was Bonnie Moore's last day as executive director at the agency. At a Wednesday morning meeting, the board's chairman tried to get other board members to agree to restructure top staff jobs. That would mean keeping Moore, who resigned last month, temporarily and paving the way to hire someone -- possibly Moore -- in a newly created job.
But board members unanimously rejected Leroy Sullivan's plan during a contentious meeting.
"We don't need to be changing" structure, said board member Rick Dunn. "We need to be moving forward."
Others said the proposal was a symptom of unnecessary power struggles.
"This ego thing has got to get out of the way here," said board member Michael Comber.
Board member Carl Kuttler, president of St. Petersburg College, said the board needs to concentrate on its mission.
"We have five or six people who won't let go of control," Kuttler said. "It's just the rumor mills of this group. We need to get beyond it."
Sullivan said he wasn't concerned about either remark.
"I have no idea what Carl's talking about and no idea what Mr. Comber's talking about," he said.
Sullivan also said that, had his proposal been adopted, he would "absolutely" have asked Moore to apply to a new job as a staffer reporting solely to the WorkNet board.
Under the WorkNet structure, the executive director reports to the board and to the county administrator. Sullivan would have made that job report only to the county and add separate staff for the board.
The board also cut back the length of time Moore will stay on the payroll by two weeks.
Meanwhile, Peachey said state regulators also have raised questions about who is being helped under the faith-based contract. WorkNet has focused on people getting jobs and moving from welfare to work. The state said the clients were supposed to already have jobs but need help with mentoring and training, Peachey said.
The contract was awarded last month to Mount Zion Human Services, a program sponsored by Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Mount Zion is supposed to oversee a network of faith groups who would provide volunteer mentors to advise the clients.
But Mount Zion stepped in only after the first church pulled out. Its contract became clouded in controversy after it became public that a former top county manager brought church officials to WorkNet to help put together the grant proposal months before other bidders knew about the grant.
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