Thursday, May 1, 2003

Warren County service program rebuts mismanagement charges



By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - Officials with an embattled social service program for babies disputed allegations Wednesday that they mishandled finances and other operations.

Last month, Warren County commissioners yanked Help Me Grow from under the control of Warren County Community Services, a nonprofit agency that oversees some of the county's social service programs.

Commissioners say Help Me Grow and Warren County Community Services officials mismanaged Help Me Grow, drove it into debt and jeopardized services for needy families. The program was put under the county's school board.

But Carolyn Tepe, Help Me Grow's former director, and her supervisor, Larry Sergeant, executive director of Warren County Community Services, said Wednesday they repeatedly warned county leaders more than a year ago about funding and other problems that led to a $70,000 deficit.

"Warren County Community Services did not financially mismanage this program," Tepe said Wednesday at Help Me Grow's offices in Lebanon. "We were not paid by the county for services provided per state Help Me Grow policy, and they failed to respond to our repeated and written verbal requests."

Last month, Tepe and Sargeant mailed letters to the program's parents, warning that services could be halted because the county wouldn't give them access to funding earmarked for Help Me Grow.

County officials deny that, saying the program hasn't filed applications to receive such funding. But commissioners have acknowledged they did not know the county was underusing millions in federal funding for the poor in recent years, money that could have gone to Help Me Grow.

The dollars weren't used because of conservative spending and complicated funding formulas, Commissioner Pat South said.

Meanwhile, state law requires Help Me Grow to serve all families who request services, regardless of income, which Help Me Grow did despite the funding problems, Tepe said.

Much of the program's funding goes to poor clients, but most Help Me Grow families are not poor, she said.

The program receives about $350,000 in state and federal funds but ran out of money for most of the families it serves.

Sargeant and Tepe on Wednesday blamed a thick layer of bureaucratic red tape between county staff members and commissioners that prevented commissioners from getting the full picture.

"I am not going to play this out in the press any further," South said Wednesday when called for comment. "We have stacks of paper, too, to show. Bottom line: We made a decision that we thought we had no other choice to make. Based on all kinds of new information we have been discovering over the past two weeks, it substantiates every single one of our reasons to reassigning the program."

Tepe has been demoted, and a service coordinator with Help Me Grow likely will be announced as the new director next week. Tepe was offered a job as a service coordinator but said she hasn't decided whether to accept.

Sargeant said an attorney has been retained for possible litigation on behalf of Warren County Community Services.

E-mail jedwards@enqurier.com




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