Embattled agency says their hat is in the ring

Last updated: August 21. 2014 11:50PM - 957 Views
By J.L. Pate jpate@civitasmedia.com

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LUMBERTON — Just six months after a scathing state audit uncovered the misappropriation of more than $4.8 million in federal funds, Southeastern Community Family Services Inc. — previously Four-County Community Services Inc. — is hoping to again win a contract for a weatherization program that was among those cited as mismanaged.

In the meantime, an internal auditor is being sought by the state to monitor the program on an ongoing basis.

The North Carolina Weatherization Assistance Program contract for Scotland, Robeson and five other counties in the state’s southeast region, which totals about $1.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year, may be awarded as early as next week, said Drew Elliott, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Erika Whitaker, executive director of Southeastern Community Family Services Inc., said Thursday that the agency has bid on the new contract.

“The state would not let us bid on the contract again if they thought the agency had done anything wrong,” she said, adding that the agency has made changes to make sure all programs are run as they should be.

The agency, which operated under its previous name since 1975, changed its name in June after a move from their long-held location of downtown Laurinburg to downtown Lumberton. Jason King, an assistant Robeson County manager who serves as chairman of the agency’s board of directors, said at the time the name was to reflect an agency that services more than four counties. The move, he said, was to a more centralized location.

Whitaker was hired in February, just before the state audit revealed the mismanagement of funds that stretched from 2009-2012.

Elliott said three bids for the weatherization contract have been received, but declined to release the names of the three entities, or to confirm that the agency is one of the three. He did say Southeastern has had the contract continuously since at least fiscal year 2006-2007.

The most recent weatherization program contract run by the agency was for $1,382,388.

“We did not renew that contract,” Elliott said. “We decided to rebid it.”

He declined to say if the decision was in response to the February audit, but said the department did not restrict the agency from bidding as it could have done.

He did, however, provide The Laurinburg Exchange with a digital copy of the audit report, which was initiated by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and conducted by the state auditor’s office. According to the audit, the agency paid the primary contractor for its Weatherization Assistance Program for work that was not performed, allowed the contractor inappropriate access to the program’s computer system, and did not complete final inspections for all work.

“You can see the recommendations in the report,” said Elliott. “We have acted or are acting on those recommendations. For instance, we are in the process of hiring an internal auditor especially for the weatherization program.”

A bid to hire an internal auditor for the department just to monitor the state’s weatherization programs on a continual basis is also expected to be awarded soon, he said.

“The internal auditor is a full-time permanent position within DENR, not a contract,” he said. “The position was posted earlier this summer and the hiring process is ongoing but we expect to make an offer soon… .”

In addition to the weatherization assistance programs, Southeastern Family and Community Services runs 16 Head Start facilities and provides assistance and services through funding from the Community Services Block Grant; Heating Appliance Repair and Replacement; and Section 8 Housing programs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency spent $15 million to $21 million in state and federal money in fiscal years 2009 through 2012 for services in Scotland, Hoke, Robeson, Bladen, Columbus, Pender, and Brunswick counties.

Based on data provided by Elliott, a total of 255 needy families in the seven-county region are dependent on the agency for assistance, most of them in Robeson County. Weather-related housing assistance is currently provided to 22 families in Scotland County, 91 in Robeson, 46 in Brunswick County, 37 in Columbus County, 19 in Bladen County, 19 in Hoke County and 21 in Pender.

J.L. Pate can be reached at 910-506-3171.

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