Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Warren changes overseer

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - Alleging a program for disabled babies has been mismanaged, Warren County Commissioners Tuesday yanked it from the oversight of Warren County Community Services and put it under the county school board.

Help Me Grow employees will retain their jobs, including executive director Carolyn Tepe - and services will continue, Commissioner Pat South said.

But a new director, Sherry Goldsmith - the current director of the county's coordinated care council - was named Tuesday through the Warren County Educational Services Center as the likely candidate to run Help Me Grow.

"This was a difficult decision to make but one that we had no choice about making," South said. "The bottom line is someone was not watching their budget and their spending and their program guidelines. They put all of those families in jeopardy of losing services and this commission was not going to allow that to happen."

Help Me Grow came under fire this year after two commissioners, Mike Kilburn and Larry Crisenbery, objected to continuing funding for it after this year's contract expired June 30, saying it duplicates services other county agencies already provide.

Then, two weeks ago, Tepe and her boss, Larry Sargeant, executive director of Warren County Community Services, sent a letter to the 238 families Help Me Grow serves, warning that services could be cut soon because the county won't give the program access to its allocated funding. They also have blamed funding problems on the overall funding mix from state and federal dollars, combined with some restrictions set by Warren County.

Now, Help Me Grow has a more than $70,000 deficit, and the program's operators haven't been turning in families' applications for eligible state dollars, county leaders said. By the end of the year, that deficit is projected to be at $134,000.

"Money was appropriated for Help Me Grow but Warren County Community Services has failed to follow procedures to bring the required funding for the program," South said.

To help balance this year's program budget, Sargeant on Tuesday asked commissioners to raise the income eligibility for families and to double service costs for Help Me Grow.

But Commissioners flatly turned him down and expressed shock and disappointment over the state of the program.

"It's a total mess," South said. "Doubling the cost absolutely would have thrown red flags up all over the place from state auditors."

Sargeant blamed Help Me Grow's overall problems on county poverty guidelines and state guidelines for the program, which dictate 70 percent of all Help Me Grow families must be eligible for federal funds allocated by the state.

He reminded commissioners that Help Me Grow is required to serve anyone who walks in their door. However, he said, 70 percent of their families this year did not meet the income guidelines.

Kilburn abstained from Tuesday's vote, echoing his stance that Help Me Grow is a waste of money. But Crisenbery said he has been enlightened on the program's positive attributes and is keeping an open mind about its future in Warren County, particularly under the new organization.

All commissioners vehemently denied the decision to change authority over Help Me Grow was retaliatory against Tepe for running against Kilburn in the last county election.

"This is just shocking to me," Tepe said. "Originally this was about Help Me Grow being a waste of money. Now it's about how we've operated accountability-wise. That's why I think it's about vengeance. The story keeps changing about what's wrong with Help Me Grow."


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