Wilkins to Meet With Agencies Over Contract Dispute

By: Margie Menzel News Service of Florida | Posted: June 14, 2013 3:55 AM
David Wilkins

DCF Secretary David Wilkins

A clash between the secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families and community-based care organizations charged with delivering child welfare services will get an airing Friday in Orlando.

The community-based agencies are resisting a move by DCF Secretary David Wilkins to tighten his control of their contracts -- including the right to name their chief executives, financial and operating officers.

"They want veto power over who the agency hires to be their CEO and CFO," said Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican. "That's a total U-turn from our previous direction."

The disputed contract language also would give DCF the right to unilaterally change performance measures after the contracts are in place.

Bean entered the dispute last week after negotiations between DCF and the Jacksonville community-based care lead agency, Family Support Services of North Florida, reached an impasse.

He and Wilkins exchanged letters in which Bean praised the community-based care model and Wilkins said the agencies' performances had improved since he introduced a scorecard to rate them.

"I understand there's angst about this, but all we're doing is putting in place a better system of care," Wilkins said.

The DCF secretary will attend a meeting Friday in Orlando with leaders of community-based care agencies from throughout the state. The contracting dispute is expected to be discussed.

Wilkins said he respects the community-based care model, but that he must set the highest standards for agencies serving the state's children. He also said he wants to standardize all the contracts with the agencies.

"The secretary says he wants standard contracts," Bean said. "OK, I'll give him that. But I won't give him control over local community leaders."

According to Bean, Family Support Services of North Florida had been on the verge of signing a new contract with DCF, effective July 1, when DCF introduced the new contract language. 

"We negotiated for two months after we prevailed in the (Invitation to Negotiate)," said Lee Kaywork, CEO of Family Support Services of North Florida. "A day or so after we signed the contract, we were notified that DCF had rescinded the authority for it to be signed. … My board felt they had already signed the contract and DCF should honor the terms."

Wilkins said the negotiation for the contract to serve Duval and Nassau counties was an "open, competitive procurement" that he couldn't discuss. "It's just not appropriate." That contract and one other, to provide services in Brevard County, are up at the end of June. 

Wilkins said the for-profit provider Devereux, which also bid on the contract now held by Family Support Services of North Florida, could still wind up winning it. He said 10 or more contracts will be coming up for renewal in the coming year. He also said it was his department's responsibility to use the competitive procurement process to get the most from community-based agencies.

"They're going to complain about taking on more responsibility, but there are plenty of organizations that are willing to take on the responsibility to help our children," Wilkins said.

DCF currently awards slightly more than $769 million to the state's 20 lead agencies, and Wilkins said procurement is one way he can ensure the best use of taxpayer money.

"We've had to rebid five or six contracts just for performance, where CBCs were just not performing," he said. "I think we've made the right decisions every time. The process works."

But according to an organization that represents the community-based care agencies, Wilkins has used other tactics as well.

"We have a trust problem and an intimidation problem," said former state Rep. Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children. "There's not been collaborative work -- on this ITN issue particularly." 

Kelly said Wilkins had used the phrase "take it or leave it" several times in the contract dispute.

At the heart of the dispute is whether the community-based care agencies are the state's partners or its vendors.

"The secretary has made it clear he views it as a vendor relationship," Kaywork said.

"It's scary for (Family Support Services of North Florida)," said Bean. "You don't bully your partner."

Both sides say they expect to work out their differences for the sake of Florida's children. 

In his letter to Bean, Wilkins said he "recognize(d) that change often causes angst, which can often lead to confusion. …(W)e are committed to working closely with (the CBCs) regarding any concerns they may have relating to improving the procurement process and the communication between our organizations."

Kelly acknowledged that his organization might consider going to the Legislature or to the courts if necessary, but it hasn't gotten to that point yet.

Bean said state law requires the use of community-based care organizations because the Legislature intended for local communities to take over child welfare responsibilities from the state.

If that isn't clear, he said, it will be his top legislative priority next year to fix it.

"I know the secretary has a passion for what he does," said Bean. "But we've already been in the direction he wants to go, and it ain't pretty."

Tags: News, Politics

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