After 25 years, Collins Center closes amid financial woes

The Collins Center for Public Policy, one of the state’s most respected think tanks, announced Thursday it is closing its doors after 25 years as a non-partisan Miami-based policy center.

A roller coaster period of growth, followed by recession-induced decline over the last two years, led to a financial fall from which the organization, named after former Gov. LeRoy Collins, could not recover.

"This is a sad, somber day for the Collins Center, the causes it espoused so valiantly, the numerous people and organizations the center helped and those who’ve fought to save it from a fiscal abyss that proved too deep to overcome,’’ said Merrett R. Stierheim, the board’s most recent chairman, in a statement.

Parker Thomson, a Miami lawyer who served as the board’s long-time chairman, said the center had been "the standard bearer for the legacy of former Gov. LeRoy Collins and his vision for a better Florida."

For years, the center was called upon to craft solutions to difficult policy challenges, Thomson said. It became the "conscience of Florida" on issues as diverse as ethics and election reforms, racial and ethnic discrimination, public safety, the environment, natural disasters, education, constitutional amendments and smart growth.

In the last election cycle, the center became a go-to source of non-partisan information on the lengthy list of constitutional amendments on the November ballot.

In recent years, the center offered services in foreclosure mediation, launching a program to provide financial counseling and mediation services in six of the 18 judicial districts. During that time, the center increased its staff 62 percent to meet the need and to draw mediation revenue from Fannie Mae.

"Those changes, however, were not nearly offset by grant revenue,’’ the center said in a press release on Thursday.

Financial problems deepened, however, when Miami-Dade County canceled its foreclosure mediation contract with the center and a robo-signing scam triggered cancellation of the judicial mediation program altogether. The center’s revenues dropped from $15.4 million in 2010 to $9.5 million in 2011 and its net revenues declined from $4.3 million to a loss of $4.2 million by July 2011.

Stierheim, the former Miami Dade County manager, was recruited to serve as interim president and CEO in August 2011. After ordering deep staff reductions and other cost savings, the center appeared headed for a turn-around.

In March 2012, the board recruited and hired Ann Henderson, then-director of the Graham Center for Public Policy at the University of Florida, to replace Stierheim. But the financial woes continued. The center lost its only remaining source of revenue — its financial counseling and mediation contract with Fannie Mae — in the fall of 2012.

"Over the past several months, we have striven to generate additional revenue,’’ Henderson said in a statement. "We have eliminated most positions, closed several offices and negotiated equipment leases and other obligations, but it has not been sufficient to survive."

The board has now voted to file for administrative dissolution and immediately cease all operations. The next step is to settle its debt to its creditors, Henderson said.