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Groups call city social service contracts inadequate

Monday, November 3, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Organizations that provide crucial community needs will walk away from Austin’s newly altered competitive process for assigning next year’s social services contracts without the funding they want, members of the City Council Public Health and Human Services Committee said Friday.

Members Laura Morrison, Mike Martinez and Chris Riley unanimously approved the final draft of contracts to send on to the full Council for final approval during the committee meeting. The committee has met numerous times over the past few weeks to complete its recommendations to Council.

“No one is going to walk away with what they want or believe that they need, and we certainly know that there is greater need in our community,” Martinez said. “We know that there is more need than there is money, and we will continue working to try and meet that need.”

This was the final round of a process that scores grant-funding proposals from social welfare organizations against each other, based on criteria such as cost effectiveness, local business presence and self-sufficiency.

Initially, programs that scored above the cutoff point were recommended by city staff for funding, and programs that did not were left off the list. However, Morrison and Martinez worked over the past few months to add a dozen organizations back into the funding pool.
The city received $30 million in funding requests. It began the process with $13.8 million to spend on contracts, but was able to pull together a little more than $16 million to fund 40 organizations for the 2015-16 fiscal year beginning next October.

Through the process, every organization has experienced across-the-board cuts in funding, Martinez said. “Everybody is taking a little bit of a hit here. There’s just not enough money,” he said.

Organizations that requested more money than the city will be able to provide stepped forward Friday to express their dissatisfaction with the process and remind the city that the cuts will keep many of the city’s underserved populations from getting necessary needs met.

Russell Smith, executive director of the Austin Child Guidance Center, which provides mental health services to children and families, said the center was thankful for funding but was counting on getting more from the city. The center requested some $294,000 for next year, but under the approved recommendation would receive $178,792.

“(The center) has dramatically increased our services over the years, and our need for services has increased exponentially,” Smith said. “Our proposal was to serve more low-income families and would have been the first significant increase for the agency in city funding in decades. We are appreciative of the small increase that is now on the list, but it is significantly lower than what we had proposed.”

Michael Lofton, on the board of directors for the African-American Youth Harvest Foundation, said he was grateful for being put back on the list after not meeting the scoring criteria. “I would ask, if at all possible, to get us back to the amount of funding that we had last year,” he said. “When you look at taking funds away from us, you are taking funds away from a hub that is critically needed.”

The foundation serves to strengthen and advocate for better educational and health needs for the city’s black community. This year, the foundation gets $343,000 from the city. Next year, under the committee’s recommended budget, the foundation would get $163,258.

Gina Hinojosa, vice president of the Austin Independent School District board of trustees, said the loss in funding for its Prime Time after-school program grant would result in closing the program in 10 schools.

“It’s not only a health and human services and social services issue, it’s a public safety issue, because those are hours that kids need to be kept busy and safe,” Hinojosa said.

Under the funding proposal, the Salvation Army’s downtown social services center would also suffer, Director Kathleen Ridings said, especially with recent news that the organization’s Austin Women and Children’s Center will need to close down portions of its 60-bed facility for renovations beginning next fall. She’s worried that with lowered funding, the downtown center will not be able to meet the needs of women and children who will be displaced by the bed closures at the shelter.

“We’re looking at this as a potentially problematic situation,” Ridings said. “We’re probably going to have to reduce capacity across the board.”

City staff said money might be shifted around from another contract, which funds the Women and Children’s Shelter, or other Austin shelters might temporarily house people who can’t find beds.

Council Member Riley said he was particularly worried about the Salvation Army’s needs, and would like to submit to the full Council a recommendation about “continuing our efforts to identify funding possibilities between now and (October) in the event that additional funding can be identified in time.”

This year’s contract evaluation system has also shed light on the need for more adjustments to the process in the future, Council members said.

Morrison said some smaller programs, which were just below the scoring cutoff line, commented that they did not have on-site grant-writing skills, which affected their proposals negatively. “We need to take that into account for smaller (groups),” she said.

Council staff said at the meeting that they will meet with organizations to go over the grant proposal process and what both the city and the organizations can do differently next year to ensure a smoother process.

The Council plans to hear a presentation on the Health and Human Services recommendations Thursday and is scheduled to vote on the contracts Nov. 20.



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