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Social service contract process causes ruckus

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Once again, the awarding of social service contracts by the city is shaping up to be a contentious issue. Though the scoring of contracts has been modified, the changes have not kept some big names from being left out.

“We realize that there are serious issues that we are going to have to sort through here. The process did not come out exactly the way that I intended or that anyone, I think, intended,” said Council Member Chris Riley, who asked for everyone to continue to work with the city moving forward.

Before 2010, social service contracts had not been competitive for more than a decade. In 2010, the city put into place a Request for Proposal process. That process left gaps in social service contract coverage, with areas such as early childhood programs not being funded. (See Austin Monitor, September 22, 2011) In order to prevent that from happening this time around, the city has developed a “life continuum” to ensure that all areas of the social contracts are covered.

The city has about $13.8 million for social service contracts, with about $30 million in requested funding. Under the life continuum model,which is one funding option, early childhood programs would receive a minimum of $949,000, youth programs would receive a minimum of $1.9 million, adult and family programs would receive a minimum of $7.3 million, and senior and disability programs would receive a minimum of $813,000. The new strategy would allow 20 percent of the total — $2.7 million — to be allocated to any category in order to fill gaps.

Under the new process, the city is now looking to put new contracts into place by October 2015, but has gotten an early start in anticipation that tweaks will be necessary. Judging from the packed room at Council’s Public Health and Human Service Committee on Tuesday, that was a sound strategy.

Council Member Mike Martinez noted that, under the initial proposal of awards, the city would fund programs that had never been funded by the city before, and existing programs with a “historic tie” to social service contracting were not recommended to receive funding.

Representatives from Easter Seals, Goodwill, Salvation Army and other charitable organizations that have received funding for decades lined up to express their concerns about the process, worrying that cuts in their funding could eliminate safety nets for the community that aren’t provided by anyone else. Like the discussions about the 2010 process, many speakers addressed the inadequacy inherent in quantitatively evaluating social service programs.

Brian McGivern of St. David’s Episcopal Church expressed his trepidation about the state of the current process.

“It seems to be proposing to enact some pretty sweeping changes,” said McGivern, who added that although scoring was done with the best of intentions, the outcomes “appear to be arbitrary … or at best opaque.”

D’Ann Johnson, branch manager of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, spoke to the fact that her organization’s legal services had been eliminated from the budget for the first time in 30 years, which she said was a huge gap in funding. She pointed out that the “cost-effectiveness” measure on the scoring matrix may not be the best way of judging legal aid services.

By way of example, Johnson said that in the past year, her agency had a case that took 350 hours of its lawyers’ time, but set a new legal standard for housing. That may not look efficient on paper, said Johnson, but it would have an impact on a large number of people. She also noted that measuring collaborations was another difficult proposition for legal work, which often required adherence to confidentiality standards.

Though city staff presented three funding options, the subcommittee did not get into the details of any of those plans. It was clear, however, that those discussions would be taking place soon.

“This is about the process, and getting it right, not rushing to a decision,” said Martinez. “We realize there are a lot of concern that have come out of this process … I want to assure everyone that my goal is to take the necessary time, have as many meetings as it takes, and to take as much public input as it takes to get us to a level where we can find some comfort moving forward.”

Health and Human Services Assistant Director Stephanie Hayden said that city staff valued all of the social service agencies in the city and asked them not to personalize funding decisions.

“Unfortunately, this was a competitive process, and the applications were scored according to the author that wrote them, and according to the application. That’s really the bottom line,” said Hayden. “This is difficult for our staff.”

The Health and Human Services Committee will hold a specially called meeting next Monday.


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