By Rose Hoban
The state Division of Services for the Blind spent $29 million over more than a decade with little or no oversight or evaluation of whether what they were spending was attaining division goals. That’s according to a new report from State Auditor Beth Wood.
In an audit released Thursday, Wood outlined how, since 2000, the Business Enterprise Program, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, “has spent more than $29 million without establishing Program goals and measures,” the report said.
Services for the blind are paid for primarily by the federal government, which covers 80 percent of the cost, or about $23.2 million.
Auditors also found the program did not measure whether it was “meeting the vocational needs and maximizing business opportunities to provide a living for the legally blind.”
The Business Enterprise Program was created to train people who are blind or visually impaired to get jobs running food-vending facilities in federal and state buildings, at highway rest stops and welcome centers or in private facilities.
Woods’ auditors, however, found that since 2000, of the 80 people trained to operate the food-service facilities, only 53 of them actually got jobs doing the work, at an average training cost of $362,500 per person.
And when people were placed in food-vending positions, the division failed to make sure they were doing their jobs properly.
The audit cited a lack of oversight of the vending services, unperformed sanitation inspections, records that were not checked and bookkeeping problems not monitored.
Craig Brown said he wasn’t surprised at the results of the audit.
“I’ve been smelling this coming down for years, and it wasn’t going to be pretty when it did,” he said.
Brown, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina in Durham, started losing his sight in the early 1980s and was completely blind by the mid-’90s, when he was a Durham district court judge. He served on the bench for 12 years.
He took advantage of rehabilitative services offered by the Division of Services for the Blind in 2012, and found himself underwhelmed.
“There was absolutely no time between what you learned in rehab and how you used it back home,” Brown said. “And there was no connection whatsoever between the two.”
He also said that the division didn’t do a good job of focusing people on getting what they needed from the rehabilitation process.
“So many of the blind are so overwhelmed by their disability that they don’t know what to do,” he said.
Better oversight needed
In an email statement, DHHS spokeswoman Olivia James said the department was grateful for “bringing to light some long-standing issues that date back to the Easley and Perdue administrations, and giving us the opportunity to take corrective action.”
However, some of the problems noted in the audit dates encompassed recent fiscal years.
In her official response, DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos argued that the cost to train 14 people in the two years between June 2012 and July 2014 was, on average, only $32,992 per person. Part of that training money came from fees that blind trainees pay out of their business-operating revenue.
Nonetheless, Wos agreed that the division needed better oversight. The former director of the Business Enterprise Program has already resigned and a review of the program is underway.