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Bickering Council approves funding for youth center

Friday, May 13, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

The debate over increasing funding for an African-American youth center in northeast Austin came to a happy conclusion for center administrators at yesterday’s Council meeting but not before Council members once again went toe to toe over the proper way for the city to parse out money to social service agencies.


At Tuesday’s work session, Council Members Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole had expressed concern that approving an amendment to the Sustainability Fund operating budget to increase funding for the African American Youth Resource Center by $270,000 would create unfair “parallel processes” for social service funding in the city. Funding the center by resolution rather than through the current social service proposal request for proposal process, they said, would put youth center administrators in a difficult position going forward and raise the ire of other social service groups that have to go through the RFP process. (See In Fact Daily, May 11, 2011.)


Spelman reiterated his support for the youth center, calling it a good project by a good organization, but he also restated his desire to see a formal proposal from the African-American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation similar to the ones put together by other social service applicants.


“I believe we owe it to all the other proposers of social service contracts, and we owe it to this particular applicant, that we assure that there is a proposal in place that addresses all the usual things we ask for in social service contracts,” Spelman said.


Such a proposal, he said, should explain an organization’s organizational capacity and experience, objectives, target populations, strategy and staffing plan.


Council Member Randi Shade, the sponsor of the resolution, pointed out — as she had on Tuesday — that the city already has a contract with the center and that the Harvest Foundation therefore does not need to go through the social service RFP process. Rather, expanding funding for the project only requires a budget amendment, she said.


Spelman responded with a friendly amendment to Shade’s motion requiring the Harvest Foundation to provide the same information as a contractor going through the RFP process. “I’m asking that this particular contractor and this particular contract be put through the same scrutiny we’re putting all the social service contracts,” he said. “Whether that requires a specific proposal or not is not as important to me than that we have specific information … (about) what they’re going to do, who’s going to staff it, how much it’s going to cost, and so on before that contract is approved.”


Shade said she would accept the friendly amendment only if it meant staff could return with the proposal after Council had approved the amendment. “If you’re asking that this not be approved until some additional proposal is provided, then no, because we already have a working relationship with this organization,” she said.


“With this extra money they’re talking about new things they’re going to be able to do,” Shade continued. “So if you would like to see them clarify what it is they’re going to do, that’s wonderful; I want to see that, too. But if we’re going to have to have some sort of complicated negotiation process instead of just adding to the existing contract, that’s not what I’m interested in.”


What followed was a testy exchange between Spelman and Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald, who said city staff would sit down with the Harvest Foundation after Council approval of the resolution to “get a little more detailed” about “specific ways in which the dollars would be spent.” McDonald said the group’s goals include becoming a “one-stop shop” of services for the lower-income African-American community. That was a concept Spelman wanted clarified.


“Before you go off and negotiate this contract,” Spelman told McDonald. “I want to make sure everyone is clear on what the one-stop shop is going to do, who the target population is; I want somebody to write it down. What the staffing strategy is going to be, and what performance measures we are going to use to verify that the one-stop shop is actually accomplishing its objectives. Is that your intention?”


McDonald responded, “Our intention when we sit down to negotiate many of the things you just mentioned we certainly plan to achieve.”


Spelman’s reply was curt. “I would like you to negotiate all of those things, Chief McDonald,” he said. “Can you do that?”


“If Council gives me the direction as a body, certainly we will,” McDonald said.


Addressing the entire room, Spelman then said he believes it was an error on Council’s part to ever authorize “amendments to existing contracts without requiring this level of information.” This was what Shade had earlier explained they had done.


“I think in all future contracts if we’re talking about an amendment for a new project, even if it’s an organization we have funded in the past … if we’re talking about extending that contract to incorporate a new project, we need to have certain basic information about what that new project is in advance of making a decision to authorize funding,” Spelman said. “So if this issue comes up again, I’ll do exactly the same thing as I’m doing here.”


With that, Council voted 7-0 in favor of the resolution.

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