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Plan to change social services contract process gets Council approval

Friday, October 1, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Austin City Council has acted to change the process by which it awards social services contracts to various outside agencies. With the measure, Council members hope to bring more competition to the process, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell compared to a plane on autopilot.


The vote came over the late objections of a slew of Austin Interfaith leaders, who argued that the new system could hurt the Capital IDEA job training program. They weren’t able to sway the Council, however, and the tally came back unanimous.


In addition, the Council acted to leave the minimum contract threshold at $20,000. City staff had proposed raising that figure to $50,000 but that met with objections from the Blackland Community Development Corporation.


Austin Interfaith’s comments were largely focused around the concept that job training projects with long-term horizons, such as Capital IDEA, would be bidding against shorter turn-around initiatives for the same pool of money. Eric Holloway, who works with Austin Interfaith and St. David’s Episcopal Church, told the body that his organization was “not afraid” of the prospect of Capital IDEA having to compete for funds.


“(But) we’re nervous at the idea of competing against short-term programs,” he added. “(W)e don’t want these two kinds of things to have to compete for money because we believe that they are both necessary.”


After the hearing, he further explained his objections to In Fact Daily. “What we’re concerned about is not only are short-term projects and long-term projects both needed…(but) if you’re using metrics for short-term projects and judging a long-term project by that, that program might suffer,” he said.


“They’re both doing very different things,” he added. “When you’re giving short-term assistance to get someone through a tough period, that’s one job; when you’re actually taking someone and training them to be in a whole different profession, a whole different class of income, that is a very different kind of task.”


When it came time to answer the group’s concerns, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez put it this way: “I think that some of the fears that I’ve heard, I believe, are unfounded and I hope that bears to be true,” he said. “I think that (with) the services you provide, and in the wrap-around manner that you provide them, you will be, probably, one of the top proposals that will come in.”


For Council Member Randi Shade, the now-approved changes represent a substantial positive change. “Bottom line is that, after more than a decade of status quo funding for our Health and Human Services contracts, this is an opportunity for us to open up the process to allow all of our current contractors to write proposals that match what they might be interested in doing today, (to) what our city’s priorities are,” she said. Shade is chair of the City Council committee that recommended the changes.


The new process will feature a flexible evaluation system designed to both give city staff and council a better grasp about who’s doing what for Austin’s needy and provide for a better set of decision-making tools (see In Fact Daily Sept. 28).


Added flexibility will come in the form of a legal exception that gives Texas municipalities some leeway in making decisions that effect a community’s health and safety. “While we may be creating (a) process where it specifically lines out how you competed and where you ended up in the pecking order, under health and services we as a Council retain the ability and the right to adjust the overall…outcome,” Martinez said.

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