Citing nepotism and questionable finances, Manatee County cuts money for Tallevast center

After hearing reports of nepotism, a lack of community access and other issues, the Manatee County Commission has unanimously decided to defund the Tallevast Community Center’s children programs.

The Bradenton Herald previously reported on questionable changes in the operation at what is now known as the Centers for Success, where the historically black community was locked out of the building that it constructed and paid for back in 1966.

Neighbors contest that they have been denied access to the basketball courts, the playground and the ability to rent the facility for events. The Centers for Success board also meets in private and many of its members are related to the director, Melissa Robinson.

A review by county staff corroborated those reports. In an updated recommendation by the county’s Children’s Services Advisory Board, the group said that nepotism and lack of access were just a few of the reasons to cut funding.

Other concerns included “poor return on investment,” inconsistencies in what the center proposed to do with the money compared to what it actually has done and “questionable financial reporting.”

The CSAB voted 9-0 at an Aug. 21 meeting to update its recommendation from $90,000 to $0.

The Board of County Commissioners previously voiced their concerns about the center in an Aug. 6 meeting, when they asked staff take a closer look at Centers for Success operations. After another discussion at Tuesday’s meeting, the board agreed to defund the center entirely.

Manatee County previously spent $90,0000 in Children’s Services funds to help pay for the center’s after school program for at-risk youth between the ages of 5 and 17. There a number of issues with the program itself, according to the CSAB.

The board reported that only four of the children in the program live in the Tallevast community and many “are bused in from as far as 18 miles from the center.” Staff salaries are also higher than the industry standard, even though the program looks after an average of 12 kids after school and 20 kids during the summer.

Debra Smith-Coleman tries to open the doors to the former Tallevast Community Center, now called the Center for Success. The doors were locked at 3:30 May 29, though there was a car parked in the lot. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

“I believe they’re not providing the services to our community the way maybe they’ve done in the past because of changes in how the program is run, ownership or whatever,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac. “So I appreciate us saying, ‘Look, this is not meeting our goals so it’s not getting funding.’”

Board members also discussed funding the Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County and Replay Outreach, two organizations that the CSAB did not recommended for funding because of poor tracking of whether the programs met their goals.

But commissioners agreed that the role both organizations play in the community is too important to go unfunded and voted unanimously to fund Healthy Teens with $90,000 and $50,000 for Replay Outreach.

“I am very much in favor of the process of review for the future. I will also say that I represent a district where we have a lot of at-risk teenagers in my district, so I’m very concerned about the Healthy Teens program going away. Not only do they look at teen pregnancy, but they’re teaching our kids about sexually transmitted diseases,” said Commissioner Misty Servia, who represents District 4, encompassing the southwestern portion of the county.

While the two programs did receive support from the board to receive funds from the county, organization leaders will be required to keep county staff updated on their activities and progress.

Community members have expressed frustration over the last few months at the changes made at what was formerly known as the Tallevast Community Center. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com
Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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