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County developing five-year plan for social service contracts

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Business in Austin and Travis County may be booming, but ironically, officials say as the economy expands, so does the need to provide social services for those whose boat does not rise with the tide. 


To meet that growing need, Travis County is planning to add up to $2 million in social services funding over the next two fiscal years, and is in the process of restructuring how those funds will be spent to cover a broader slice of the community. Travis County Commissioners approved the framework of the new Social Services spending plan in early October, and the county Health and Human Services staff will develop a plan and bring it back to commissioners in mid-November.


Laurence Lyman, an HHS planning manager, said that Travis County has not made any significant changes in the way it funds social services since 1998.


“The long-term idea, which does get to changing how we do our business, is that we want to get to a regular funding cycle that will allow us to formally review, update and procure as appropriate all of our investments over a five-year period,” he said.


“There’s no magic to five years – it’s just a number that seems to fit right now. What we are trying to develop is a system that instead of procuring everything all at once, we are going to try and craft a system in which we can organize our spending in a more focused manner,” Lyman said.


The framework approved by commissioners calls for $1 million in new spending for the 2014 fiscal year, and another $1 million in 2015. County staff refers to the new money in terms of an “investment” in the community.


According to a preliminary outline of the plan staff is developing, Travis County will allocate an immediate $500,000 in ongoing funds to be added to its existing investments in Early Childhood Services, which will be allocated through the new procurement process. For 2014, the county will also dedicate $1.1 million to continue “one time” contracts from FY13 as it transitions to a regular cycle and will identify priorities for new investments.


In addition to these reserves, Commissioners reallocated an addition $1 million for new investments (up to $2 million for FY2015), and directed HHS staff to work with community stakeholders to identify priorities for the new funding.


To that end, HHS staff has held a series of stakeholder meetings in the past few weeks to gather input from current and potential social service clients. According to one of the largest umbrella groups in the county, the move is a step in the right direction.


“These changes are an important step in making sure that these funds are spent in the areas of greatest need, “ said Paul Scott, executive director of AIDS Services of Austin and is chair of One Voice Central Texas, a coalition of more than 85 groups that deliver services to local communities. “By defining what they are looking for, it will help our organizations to address the current gaps in coverage in the community.”


Scott said that Travis County’s approach of developing a five-year plan could avoid some of the problems experienced by the City of Austin when it restructured its social services spending in 2011. There was a great deal of upheaval among the groups when they all essentially had to reapply to the city for funding. Scott says that process has been smoothed out now, but he believes the county will be able to avoid a similar situation. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 22, 2011)


HHS staff said they don’t yet have a firm date to report back to Commissioners Court but it will likely happen before the end of November.

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