A committee given more than half a million dollars in state money to help Spokane County kids spent 64 percent of it on surveys, lobbying and consultants, prompting county commissioners to request a state audit.
The audit is not yet completed. But there’s no indication the Spokane County Community Network has done anything but follow its controversial legislative mandate.
Created in 1994, the 53 networks in communities statewide are supposed to give top priority to finding long-term solutions for child abuse, youth violence, youth drug abuse, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, high-school dropouts and teen suicide.
The assignment rankles some traditional service-givers and politicians who want the money doled out to help people now and say the networks waste money.
In Spokane, one of the 19 network board members, Kasey Kramer, the county’s community services director, is critical of the process. He recently brought his concerns to commissioners, prompting the call for an audit.
Such conflicts aren’t surprising, said Carol Darby, a consultant for the Spokane network.
“This is one of the most radical changes in the state right now,” she said. “It’s been controversial from the start.”
It is Darby and fellow consultant Marcy Drummond - not the YMCA, Children’s Home Society or similar groups - who are the top financial beneficiaries of the Spokane network.
Darby Team Consulting collected $178,000 in 1996 and through May of this year, county records show. By the time the firm’s June and July bills are paid, the total will top $204,000, which includes office assistants’ wages, office space and supplies.
The bills include about $2,600 for time Darby spent lobbying the Legislature to continue funding the 53 networks. That work was approved by the Spokane network board.
The network has no staff and lists the telephone number of Darby Team Consulting as its own. When it has an expense, Darby and Drummond pay the bill, then are reimbursed.
Last Wednesday, network board members voted to extend Darby and Drummond’s contract another 90 days.
By comparison to its spending on consultants, the network gave $206,950 to agencies that teach teenage fathers to care for infants, help single mothers get jobs and otherwise bolster struggling families. No single agency got more than $40,000.
Even that money is drying up.
Board members on Wednesday reaffirmed an earlier vote to give no more money to social service agencies, saying the $310,000 the network will receive between now and 1999 is better spent improving the delivery of services.
In a July 15 letter to other board members, Kramer called the consultant fees “a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Kramer’s letter warns that unless more money goes to kids and less to consultants, commissioners may “totally withdraw the county’s participation in the network, including withdrawing participation by county representatives.”
“What they’re doing may be legal. It isn’t right,” said Commissioner Phil Harris.
Commissioners aren’t the only ones who are critical.
State Rep. Suzette Cooke, a candidate for King County executive, has led the legislative fight to do away with the networks. Cooke, who supported the concept of networks, contends the boards shouldn’t receive money because they aren’t elected.
“They consistently have their hands out for more money, not (to provide) more services, but for more administration,” said the Kent Republican. “Consultants were just eager as can be” to see them formed.
While all were required to write plans for long-range solutions, networks across the state have taken drastically different approaches toward spending their money.
The Thurston County Community Network funded a community garden in Olympia, a skateboard park in Yelm and a canoe shed on the Nisqually Indian Reservation.
“We’re trying to build community assets because kids need things to do,” said Margie Reeves, Thurston County chairwoman.
The Pierce County Community Network spent most of its money on grants, while the neighboring Tacoma Urban Community Network offered no grants at all. Instead, the Tacoma group offered a 10-week class to help agencies adapt to changing expectations - exactly the type of effort the Legislature had in mind, said David Brenna, director of the state Family Policy Council.
“This is not about a political quick fix,” said Brenna, whose agency oversees the work of all 53 networks. “This is about a long-term effort to fundamentally change the way we help families in our communities.”
The Legislature gave the networks $10 million for the two years ending this month. It was from that pool that Spokane got its initial $586,000.
Even with the budget-cutting zeal of the last session, the networks got another $7 million to spend between now and mid-1999. Spokane’s share is $310,000.
Darby and Drummond charge $65 an hour, which is $40 less than their usual fee, Darby said. The $40 difference counts toward the Legislature’s requirement that local governments or private donors contribute $25 for every $75 provided by the state.
Other networks have hired consultants, as well. The Thurston County Community Network hired two, for $75 and $95 an hour, said Reeves.
Darby was the subject of controversy in 1994 when commissioners hired her to help run county government. Then-Commissioner Steve Hasson objected to her fee of $7,500 a month.
Drummond is the wife of Eastern Washington University President Marshall Drummond.
Kramer said Darby and Drummond’s work is “excellent,” but adds that “I just question the cost … Was it a wise investment?”
The investment will pay off, said network chairman Kohls.
“We are very proud of what we did and of the work that our consultants did” the first two years, he said.
The network spent 18 months studying the problems facing teens in Spokane, surveying the public and writing a plan for addressing the problems. Those steps are required under state law.
The plan calls for cutting teen violence, poverty and drug abuse by 15 percent by 2006; and reducing the drop-out rate by 10 percent by 2001, among other goals. It is vague about how those goals will be achieved, but calls for more collaboration between service providers and more accountability of the way money is spent on services.
For instance, the plan proposes a system of evaluating whether programs really help families and in what way. Now, programs are judged primarily by the number of people who receive services, not on whether lives are improved.
Proponents say that in the long run, writing plans and scrutinizing programs will save taxpayers money and assure that more people are helped.
“It’s a significant departure (from the past),” said Dan Erker, chairman of the Tacoma Urban Community Network. “You’re not measuring output, you’re measuring success. You’re asking what’s working and if it’s not working why fund it?”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NETWORK MEMBERS State law requires that community networks have 23 members, representing various interests. The Spokane County Community Network currently has five openings. Here are its members: Bob Lochmiller and Frank Tombari, representing the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce. Connie Nelson, Linda Urquhart and John Kohls, representing school boards. Vic Forni and Alfonse Hill, representing unincorporated areas of Spokane County. June Shapiro, Richard Holmes and Don Barlow, representing cities. Toni Lodge, representing Native American tribes. Mark Lewis, representing the juvenile justice system. Brian Barbour, representing state children service workers. Kasey Kramer, representing Spokane County government. Al Brislain, representing religious organizations. Linda Thompson, representing private social-service providers. Sheriff John Goldman, representing law enforcement. Don Ott, representing the state Department of Employment Security. The openings are for positions to represent the chamber of commerce, unincorporated areas, the cities, parks and recreation agencies and students.