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Ridgecrest center is closed and in the red

The Greater Ridgecrest Area Neighborhood Family Center will not get a new contract. The Juvenile Welfare Board may give funds to other agencies doing work in that area.

By MONIQUE FIELDS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001


The Greater Ridgecrest Area Neighborhood Family Center will not get a new contract. The Juvenile Welfare Board may give funds to other agencies doing work in that area.

LARGO -- The Greater Ridgecrest Area Neighborhood Family Center hasn't produced receipts for more than $15,000 it spent, and the group owes the Juvenile Welfare Board more than $9,000 for a cash advance issued last year, according to an independent accountant's report.

A sampling of reimbursements for the period from Oct. 1, 2000, through June 15, 2001, showed that 75 percent of the documents were either incomplete or inaccurate, the board said. The center's director, Fran Philpot-Scott, resigned in June, and no staff or programs are at the center, which closed Aug. 17.

As a result, the board will not issue a new contract to the Greater Ridgecrest center on Oct. 1.

"It has no assets," said Juvenile Welfare Board Executive Director Jim Mills. "It has a board. It still exists on paper, but there is no program and no staff."

This is the second time the Juvenile Welfare Board has found itself in this kind of situation this year. In February, the board stopped funding the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center, citing six years of accounting problems and violations of fiscal policy.

Questions about the management of the Greater Ridgecrest center arose in June when the JWB found numerous accounting irregularities and learned that financial documents had been shredded.

The Pinellas County Sherriff's Office was notified about the shredding, but the matter is not under investigation.

"We asked (JWB) to give us documents and they have not supplied us with any documentation to start an investigation," said sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie.

Greater Ridgecrest center board chairman Edward "BeBe" Hobson said he is confident the center can account for the most of the $15,000 in receipts. With the help of the JWB, the center would like to hire someone to chase down receipts or other documentation because members of the board have full-time jobs that won't allow them to search for the documents.

"Seventy-five to 85 percent of it could be taken care of with the right invoices and the right phone calls," Hobson said.

As for the $9,000, Hobson said he will ask for forgiveness for the center's paperwork errors. If the JWB doesn't budge, Hobson will turn to the community for the money.

"I'm going to call up some folks in some local churches, have some programs, call my local pastor friends and say "We need your help. This is what we have to do to save the face of this community."'

Despite the closure of the center, the community may not lose services permanently.

JWB's staff is now interviewing Greater Ridgecrest board members and community leaders about needed services. They are also reviewing what programs are already available and evaluating the viability of the neighborhood center.

The Greater Ridgecrest center would have had an annual budget of $155,000, beginning Oct. 1.The board may take that money and distribute it to other agencies doing work in the area. The JWB will discuss the matter again in 60 to 90 days to see how the funds will be allocated, Mills said.

Hobson said he was pleased the JWB remains committed to the neighborhood. He does, however, think the whole matter could have been avoided with intense, mandatory financial training for the center's board members.

At a meeting Thursday, JWB board members discussed ways they could make sure center board members know they have been entrusted with the center's well-being.

"You have to have responsible board members and they have to know they have a responsibility," said board member Jeanne Malchon.

Until this year, the center appeared to be running smoothly.

The neighborhood center got its start in April 1997 at a community meeting where Pinellas County officials asked what services residents wanted in Ridgecrest, a predominantly black neighborhood near Largo.

That move was followed by the creation of the Greater Ridgecrest Area Board of Directors which worked on projects to improve the neighborhood. The board also oversaw the family center, which took on various roles, from serving as a teen hangout to being a resource for parents.

That all came to a standstill in June when recordkeeping errors came to light and the JWB immediately stepped in and took over financial control of the center.

"It just reminds us that if a board's attention gets diverted for a short period of time bad things can happen," Mills said.

- Information from Times files were used in this report.

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