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Friday, Apr 18, 2014
Crime & Courts

Audit criticizes Family Justice Center operations

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TAMPA — A county audit of the Family Justice Center criticizes the agency for spending beyond its means.

The audit said the organization, once a clearinghouse for domestic violence victims, had been living on borrowed funds. The group already has let go its staff because there is no money left in its accounts.

The center, which had asked the county commission earlier this month to make a donation of $170,000 to keep it running, had offered counseling, assessed danger and connected victims with organizations that offer help and even shelter. Opening in 2006 as part of a federal program, the center had helped 80 to 90 families a month get protective injunctions against abusers, administrators said.

Commissioners ordered the audit before considering the donation. The matter is scheduled to come up for discussion at Wednesday’s commission meeting.

Among the audit’s findings:

* The 2013 budget was not balanced and projected a $365,454 deficit, or 33 percent of its operating expenses, “with no evident plan to either reduce costs or increase revenues.”

* A June 30 interim financial statement indicted the center had a zero cash balance and its line of credit of $50,000 was maxed out.

* The center relies on a small number of contributing agencies and there is little evidence of any successful fundraising activities.

* The center’s annual budget is $950,000, a third of which goes into a building lease, utilities and maintenance costs. The center has signed a lease for the space through September 2015.

* The executive director has an employment contract that awards her one year’s salary and 18 months of insurance benefits if she is terminated without cause.

“The FJC’s financial condition is severely challenged,” the audit concluded, “and they have fully expended available current resources to fund current obligations. Our review identified numerous operational and financial red flags that call into question the abilities of current management to successfully conduct FJC’s operating activities.”

One positive aspect of the report was that other agencies that had worked with the Family Justice Center, like the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, have moved funding to other services, possibly making up for the loss of services provided by the justice center, said Tom Fesler, director of Hillsborough County Business and Support Services, which conductd the audit.

“We believe the gaps are covered,” he said.

Much of the center’s financial problems stemmed from a large cut in funding from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. The Children’s Board had been giving the center $600,000 a year, but this year cut that amount in half.

Auditors wanted to see how the center responded after the Children’s Board cut funding, hoping Family Justice Center administrators would get aggressive in netting grants from non-government sources. But that didn’t happen, Fesler said. Instead, operating expenses were paid through the line of credit.

Pumping money into the center from the county won’t help, he said.

“Infusing cash to pay for a line of credit probably is not what the commission wants,” he said.

The county had already given $100,000 to the center in the last fiscal year.

Nikki Daniels, the executive director of the center, could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but she responded in writing to the audit. In her response, she said that in most other locations where Family Justice Centers operate, they are part of the city or county government and in some cases part of law enforcement agencies. In those cases, center offices are located within those agencies and don’t have to pay high rental fees. She said those centers are fully funded from government coffers and aren’t reliant on donations.

She said the center is working on solutions, including lobbying state legislators for funding and working to maintain and increase donations.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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