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Revised slate of social service contractors wins approval

Friday, June 24, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Last night, the City Council unanimously directed City Manager Marc Ott to negotiate contracts with 31 social service providers for the coming year. That’s 15 more than were originally recommended by staff but still a significant reduction in the number of agencies receiving city funding.


The negotiations will be an enormous leap forward in a process that started last September, when Council approved the first competitive process for social service contracts since 1999.


Since that initial vote, the Public Heath and Human Services Committee has struggled to balance the social service needs of the community with harsh financial realities. Initially, staff recommendations based on the Request for Proposal process meant that 16 agencies would receive some portion of the approximately $13.2 million budgeted for social services, leaving some 50 other agencies with nothing. Public outcry about unmet needs and service gaps was swift and passionate.


Under the terms of the resolution passed yesterday, the city manager is directed to use a modified 70 percent funding option as a starting point for negotiations with social service providers. That 70 percent is a target, a starting point, that gives staff the flexibility to go up or down based on community needs and the services each agency provides.


Perhaps most importantly, that 70 percent starting point will enable the city to add 15 agencies to the list of 16 already set to receive funding, thereby expanding the scope of services that can be provided and filling in significant service gaps.


The resolution also directs the city manager to explore possible funding options outside of the city’s social services budget for particular agencies, including Austin Travis County Integral Care and the Center for Child Protection.


All of these directions were solidified at the last meeting of the Public Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. Council did make one amendment to the resolution that was put before them yesterday, however. The resolution would have extended current social service contracts to September 30, 2012, meaning the new three-year contracts approved under the current RFP would not begin until Oct. 1, 2012. Instead Council voted to move that date up and begin those contracts on April 1, 2012.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, who made the motion, said, “That does mean we have to bust our butts a little bit to get to that day.” But, he said, he would be willing to push that date back as it gets closer if it became clear that the committee couldn’t figure out how to fund particular significant projects.


Talk of further delays didn’t seem to sit well with many audience members, several of whom were there as representatives of frustrated, under-funded social service agencies, and both Council members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade expressed the need for “certainty” in the process.


Shade, who led the charge to solidify the social service negotiation process as the chair of the Public Health and Human Services Committee, and who was speaking at her last Council meeting as a member, stressed the need for certainty on the funding timeline, even if it meant making difficult choices going forward.


“One of the benefits of working on an April deadline would be that it’s going to be a part of this budget cycle,” Shade said. “So it may mean you can’t go as far down the list (of proposals) as you want. … By giving staff the opportunity to negotiate using the criteria and the scoring matrix, and knowing they have the flexibility to do 90 percent funding on one project and 70 percent on another one … the Council will have a much better basis for making additional budget requests or saying, ‘We can only go this far down the list.’”


Shade acknowledged it will be difficult for Council to make decisions on social service funding in April, but she said establishing a firm date for those decisions will make it easier for each group to know where they stand in terms of bettering their chances in future application processes.


Either way, it’s not something Shade will have to worry about any more. “I wish all of you all Godspeed,” Shade said to laughter from the audience and her fellow Council members.

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