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HHS requesting $2.1 million to satisfy commitments in FY2013

Thursday, May 3, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

After a year spent dealing with reduced federal funds and a new competitive-bid social service contract process, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is heading into FY2013 requesting more than $2 million to address unmet needs and slightly behind on several of its key performance indicators.

However, department Director Carlos Rivera believes HHS is entering a new age of “cross-divisional collaboration” that will allow for more efficient use of funds and resources to help the city’s most vulnerable populations.

“One of the things we’ve had a deficit in is a strategic vision of help for the city,” Rivera told City Council at its budget work session Wednesday. “We’ve had some struggles around where we should be making our investments. … If we all get on the same page we should be able to do a better job of providing the services that our community needs.”

Those investment struggles have been the result of a decline in funds and the move by the city to a competitive RFP process for social service contracts. When choosing which social service groups should receive city funds during that process, the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee eventually chose to focus on groups that provide services to address basic needs, rather than, say, drug treatment or homeless services.

Council Member Laura Morrison, who also sits on the HHS committee, complimented Rivera for acknowledging the need to clearly identify city priorities in order to close service gaps, and for highlighting deficiencies the department has not yet fully addressed.

“With regard to setting priorities and identifying who does what, that’s really one of the greatest frustrations that came out of the RFP process that we had,” Morrison said. “It became clear very early on that we didn’t have a concept in place in this community that said who’s responsible for what and therefore what are our priorities for our funding. We didn’t know where the gaps were; we didn’t know where the redundancies were, and we can’t optimize the use of our very precious dollars unless we ensure that everyone’s doing the maximum effectiveness with their funding. We have to be more strategic about our funding.”

Rivera agreed, though he pointed out that low funding levels (HHS has a current budget of just under $60 million) make it hard for him and his staff to provide the kinds of services the city’s most vulnerable need.

“Our department is stretched thin in just about every area imaginable, whether it’s WIC (Women, Infants, And Children), whether it’s immunizations, TB control, basic needs, food inspections,” Rivera said. “We are razor thin.”

Rivera pointed to a few key performance indicators where the department is off from its 2012 goals. In the area of environmental health, he said, during 2012 HHS staff had hoped to do 2.0 routine inspections of each fixed food establishment (there are 4,500 fixed eateries and 1,400 mobile eateries in the city); staff is now estimating an average of 1.75 inspections per establishment. In addition, staff estimates that only 450 homeless persons receiving case management who will move to safe and stable housing. That number is slightly more than half the number HHS had set as a goal for the year.

HHS is also facing a $253,000 reduction in funding for the Austin Travis County Integral Care Substance Abuse program, a reduction that will leave that program entirely unfunded in FY13.

To try to close some of these service gaps, Rivera formally requested of Council $2.1 million for unmet needs. That number includes $372,000 for grant support, $91,000 for a public health nurse, $143,000 to continue funding the Safe Routes to School Program at half-staff, and $649,000 to continue the ATCIC Substance Abuse Program.

Council members sounded supportive of Rivera’s moves to come up with an overall strategic division for his department. But Mayor Lee Leffingwell wanted to make sure HHS staff keeps its focus on basic needs, a responsibility they took on years ago when United Way, a partner of the department, switched its focus from basic needs to other functions.

“So Austin and Travis County said, ‘Okay, you’re going to focus on that; we’re going to focus on basic needs,’” Leffingwell said. “There was a lot of work and lot of controversy over several years on the Health and Human Services Committee to try to put this new format in place, and what I see is it’s beginning to creep back again. We’ve forgotten our history on this issue.”

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