The Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County has spent more than $350,000 in tax money intended for kids on management reorganization by a pair of Canadian consultants whose charges include $275 an hour for "executive coaching.''
The council first hired Ruth Flicker, a Montreal-based consultant, in July 2009 to help answer questions such as "how the structure was meant to work and current perceptions — how people in the organization think it really works,'' according to her contract.
Her husband, David Flicker, also was brought in and paid $150,000 by the council — $20,000 a month —to be its interim chief of public affairs beginning in October.
The council needed outside help to operate more "effectively and efficiently'' and cut costs as revenues shrank, CEO Tana Ebbole said. "It's not just downsizing … as much as reorganizing so that we are positioned for the future.''
The consultants helped identify 14 positions to eliminate, which will save the council about $1 million a year, said council Chairman Rod Macon, a retired FPL executive.
"That's important to me as a taxpayer that we're looking for ways to save money,'' he said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that we made the right decision.''
The council collects a portion of the property taxes paid in the county and has a budget of about $112 million a year to fund programs that help children. One of eight such councils in the state, Palm Beach County's stands out for having the highest executive salaries — $220,000 a year for Ebbole — and for its spending on consultants and lobbyists.
Since 2009, the council has signed 10 contracts with the Flickers' company, RRF Human Development Consultants Inc., for a total of about $450,000. Work on two of the contracts is scheduled to continue through September.
Among the consultants' recommendations: "accent reduction coaching'' for council employees.
"We have a very international staff, and some of our staff speak with fairly heavy accents,'' Ebbole said. The coaching will be available on a voluntary basis for "those employees who might have accents that would create the situation where it's hard for people to exactly understand them.''
In selecting the Flickers, Ebbole waived a requirement for competitive bidding and only informally explored other consultants, whose charges she said were "in the same ballpark.''
Ruth Flicker is an educational psychologist who "specializes in facilitating organizational change,'' according to a bio she gave to the council. Her clients have included Air Canada and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
David Flicker was vice president of public affairs for a transcontinental transportation company.
In an interview, the Flickers said their work has helped the council adjust to the changes brought on by the economy, which not only cut into its bottom line but created more of a demand for children's services.
"We've gone from an environment of plentifulness to a feeling a scarcity,'' Ruth Flicker said. The council is "positioned for the challenges that exist now.''
Ruth Flicker's first assignment, for $25,000, was a review of the council's executive leadership group. Her charges included $275 an hour for "stakeholder interviews'' and coaching, and $2,500 a day for retreats.
"Her principal conclusion was that too many people were meeting far too often and spending too much time considering too wide-ranging agendas,'' council records say.
After that assignment ended, Ruth Flicker signed another $50,000 contract that included determining whether the council needed additional executives and "who else should report directly to the CEO and have a seat at the CEO's Group table,'' according to the contract. Flicker held meetings with executive staff on topics such as "difficult conversations'' and "pipeline principles.''
In another contract last year, the council paid Ruth Flicker $35,000 for leadership development and coaching of executives on "how to embrace ambiguity and welcome disruptive information.''
One result of the consultants' work — the council has merged and renamed departments. Human resources and two others became the "center for talent management;'' research and professional development are now called "knowledge management.''
David Flicker reorganized public affairs and helped in the search of someone to lead the 10-person office. John Bartosek, a former Palm Beach Post editor, recently started in the newly created role of chief of public affairs at a yearly salary of $140,000.
The search is still on for another new executive, a "chief of knowledge management,'' who would earn about $176,000 a year, according to council records.
The 14 positions the Flickers helped identify for elimination came on top of 16 others the council cut earlier as a result of losing about $7 million in revenues since the recession. In all, the council will have reduced its workforce from 140 to 106 by next year, Ebbole said.
"We've made huge changes in staff and all the departments,'' said board member Dari Bowman, a child advocate. "We're serving more children than we ever have before with less money.''
She said the investment in the Flickers has paid off.
"We've been able to make sure that the right people are doing the right jobs,'' Bowman said. "I think our consultants help us get a lot more bang for the buck.''
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