$1 million grant for Miami-Dade trade school wasted, audit says

 
 
Bay Point Schools in Cutler Bay
Bay Point Schools in Cutler Bay

BrowardBulldog.org

A defunct youth-offender program in Miami-Dade wasted a $1 million county grant building a vocational trade school that has sat empty for the past three years, according to a scathing Inspector General audit.

The findings exposed gross mismanagement by the county’s now-disbanded Office of Capital Improvements, which distributed the funds to Bay Point Schools in Cutler Bay from 2009 to 2011.

At the time, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice cut off all operational funding for Bay Point, effectively shutting it down in 2009.

Assistant Inspector General Patra Liu, who wrote the audit report, declined to comment. In the report, Liu concluded “approximately $831,000 in taxpayer grant funds were expended after stakeholders were put on notice of the project’s lack of viability.”

The capital improvements office later distributed an additional $121,680 “without adequate supporting documentation. These disbursements were made at the end of project when it was well known that Bay Point Schools was no longer operational,” the report, issued June 20, states.

Miami-Dade Budget Management Director Jennifer Moon, whose office now oversees capital improvement funds, said the county is working actively with the landowner — the Ethel and W. George Kennedy Foundation — to find another agency to use the school building for its intended purpose.

Moon said that when county Mayor Carlos Gimenez consolidated county departments shortly after he took office in July 2011, he and his executive staff found a “number of shortcomings” in the capital improvements office.

“We realized it needed to be better managed,” Moon said. “That is why there was a reorganization well in advance of this audit.”

In 2008, Bay Point was among 37 nonprofit groups that received grants from Miami-Dade’s $2.9 billion general-obligation bond program.

Founded in 1995 by Mary Louise Cole-Wood, the boarding school for at-risk youths had an annual $2 million contract from the state Department of Juvenile Justice to rehabilitate troubled teenage boys. During its first eight years of existence, judges, children’s advocates and former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist hailed Bay Point as a model program.

It grew from one boarding home along Southwest 87th Avenue to a campus with five buildings housing 157 juvenile offenders. Bay Point wanted the county funds, along with a $1 million match from the Lennar Foundation, to build the trade school so the young men could find work once they were released.

But problems accompanied the school’s rapid expansion. From 2003 to 2009, the juvenile justice department documented 98 incidents at Bay Point, including 34 escapes involving 63 youths, and allegations of unnecessary force, abuse or neglect, improper supervision and falsification of records.

State administrators finally yanked Bay Point’s contract, and began moving youths to other facilities in January 2009.

While Cole-Wood fought unsuccessfully to keep the state funding intact, construction of the trade school fell behind schedule. The Inspector General’s report says employees in the county’s capital improvements office knew about Bay Point’s problems, but failed to act. The auditors did not blame any employees by name, but criticized the department in general for mismanagement.

“During these early months, we believe that [the capital improvements staff] should have informed [county commissioners] and [the bond program citizen’s advisory committee] of the red flags and their possible impact on Bay Point Schools’ ability to comply with grant agreement terms,” the report states.

The county had handed out less than $200,000 of the $1 million grant in 2009, the Inspector General discovered.

“At this time, [the capital improvements staff] with knowledge of Bay Point School’s demise had questionable basis to continue funding this project for which there was no reasonable and foreseeable alternative for successfully completing,” the report states.

Instead, the capital improvements office continued doling out money until the entire grant had been spent. The final payment of $90,000 was made in June 2011 to finish construction and obtain a certificate of occupancy.

By then, the school was no longer housing juvenile offenders. Last year, the Kennedy Foundation formally evicted Bay Point, and Cole-Wood did not renew the agency’s nonprofit status.

Moon said employees from the capital improvements office, including former director George Navarette, were reassigned to other county departments. She refused to blame them for what happened with Bay Point.

“Just because Bay Point is not there anymore doesn’t mean the facility won’t be used for its intended purpose,” Moon said, adding that the Kennedy Foundation has been taking care of the school building.

Complicating matters, however, is a law passed by the town of Cutler Bay prohibiting the Bay Point campus from again being used to house juvenile offenders.

Moon insists the law does not prevent the school building from being used to teach vocational trades. “The facility is well-built and well-maintained,” she said. “I’m sure we will find someone to utilize it.”

Broward Bulldog is a not-for-profit, online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. www.browardbulldog.org, 954-603-1351.

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