Taking a bath on life vests

If someone told me they were going to sell me me a fully-tricked out Mustang if I first gave them $5,000, just imagine how I might react when they showed up with a Taurus instead. It wouldn’t be pretty.

That could be the reaction of folks at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment if they get a final report from the county showing the health department spent almost $5,000 of their money on life jackets for kids.

The state signed off on a grant award with the county in May 2015 for a comprehensive child safety initiative. Successfully proposed by former county Safe Kids coordinator Sondra Mayfield, $5,000 was to be used to buy safety items: 60 personal flotation devices, 80 TV straps/brackets, 100 baby bath thermometers, 80 home child-proofing kits, eight gun locks, and 80 farm safety handbooks.

County preschoolers would get life jackets on the last day of school, and they and their parents would get water safety instruction. Child-proofing kits and baby bath thermometers would be given out on Healthy Start home visits, and TV straps and gun locks provided as needed. All vocational agriculture classes at county high schools were to receive farm safety handbooks.

Having spent 25 years in jobs related to early childhood education, that sounds like a really good plan to promote child safety.

It might have been, but as of Sept. 26, five days before the end of the grant, apparently none of the items had been purchased.

County health department director Diedre Serene came to a commission meeting that day to seek approval to buy not 60, but 129 life vests, 31 of those for adults, and 36 infant/toddler play yards. Estimated cost: $4,850. No childproofing kits, no farm safety handbooks, no TV straps or gunlocks or baby bath thermometers.

The money had to be spent by Friday when the grant period ended, Serene told commissioners.

Included in the commissioners’ packet for review prior to the meeting was the grant proposal and contract, as well as the proposed alternative purchase, which they approved.

It’s a game with which I’m well familiar, having managed more than 20 grants for nearly $30 million in my previous career. It’s not uncommon to contact funders to get permission to carry the money over, find allowable items to spend it on, or simply send the money back.

We contacted the state department of health asking for any approved written requests to modify the terms of the contract, a procedure outlined in the contract itself. All that they sent back was the original contract.

That Mayfield, the person who would have implemented the program, left the department is no excuse. The state’s contract is with the county, not Mayfield, and it was up to others to see that the contract was fulfilled.

We couldn’t confirm Tuesday that the county went ahead with the purchase, but there’s little reason to believe otherwise.

“Use it or lose it” is common practice in government circles. To make sure you get at least as much money next year as this, if not an increase, you’d better use up all your budget. Having managed numerous grants, I’ve played the game myself on a couple of occasions.

What I’ve never done is taken a taxpayer-funded grant, held onto the money until the last minute, and then rushed to use up all the money by buying things that weren’t part of the original taxpayer-funded deal.

It’s not so easy to just say the money should have been sent back instead of spent, or that the money should have been carried over. In the crazy world of government finance, those aren’t always options. In this case, that’s for the state department of health to decide once they see how their/our money was used.

The biggest losers in this are the children the comprehensive safety program was meant to protect.

For most county kids, the life vests will keep them safe three months out of the year. Everything else in the grant that wasn’t purchased would have kept kids safe year round.

I doubt seriously that the state will say it wants the money back. Instead, they’ll likely put a note in the file asking for additional monitoring the next time they send a grant this way.

Commissioners should take this as a warning that a more robust system to manage grants and protect taxpayers’ interests is needed. Lacking a county administrator who could monitor such things, they need to figure out a way to keep on top of special funds themselves. That they approved the expense last week without asking serious questions in open session about how this got overlooked was to abdicate their responsibility to taxpayers.

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 6, 2016