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Council debates social service spending

Friday, April 1, 2016 by Jack Craver

Divisions within City Council over spending on social services were put into sharp relief Thursday as the Health and Human Services Department asked city leaders to approve a 6 percent boost in funding for nonprofit agencies with which the city contracts for a variety of services.

The immediate effect of the funding boost, which Council approved 8-2, is not dramatic. Council had already approved a $1.8 million increase in funding for social service contracts in last year’s budget, and the department was able to direct most of that money to nonprofits administratively. That decision was in keeping with a 2014 resolution passed by the previous Council that recommended the city regularly increase funding for social service contracts to keep pace with inflation.

The department was required, however, to get authorization from Council to distribute the remaining $760,746 from its budget to 13 social service providers for whom the funding increase would amount to more than $58,000 each.

The debate ultimately focused less on the specific amount being authorized and more on the roughly $40 million that the city is projected to pay the 13 organizations over the lifetimes of the 37-month contracts.

Conservative Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair, the two dissenting votes on the measure, grilled city staff on whether the nonprofits receiving funds were being held accountable to taxpayers.

“The taxpayers are really angry at this process,” said Zimmerman. “We throw money at a problem, and we don’t define what we’re going to get when the money runs out. We’ve accomplished very little if anything, and (nonprofits) demand more money and more money. And we get no results. We need to change this process, and I’d like to start here today.”

City staff and other Council members forcefully pushed back on the notion that money was being casually thrown at nonprofits, or that the groups receiving the money were not being held accountable for their performance.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, commenting after Troxclair had asked staff a series of questions about whether the increased funding would be accompanied by enhanced outcomes from the organizations, said that she trusted the professionals tasked with vetting the contracts.

“Outcomes are critical to all of these organizations,” said Kitchen. “These are not nonprofits that are just acting on a whim and just spending our money in whatever way they choose.”

Zimmerman later dismissed that comment, saying that his colleagues were asking him to approve funding “based on blind faith.”

“Blind faith is a pretty decent approach for irrational religion,” he said. “But when it comes to tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money, I think it’s an offense, frankly.”

Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas, a nonprofit focused on homelessness, defended her organization’s performance. She said the group in recent years has been able to connect 75 percent of the people it serves with permanent housing.

“That is just one example of what you’re getting for your money,” she said. “You’re getting people who don’t end up at the shelter, and we don’t have to spend money on them at the shelter.”

“This is one of the best investments our city can make,” she added.

Council Member Sheri Gallo appeared to bridge the concerns of both sides. She asked questions of city staff about the financial details of the contracts, but, highlighting Caritas in particular, she emphasized her respect for the organizations receiving the funds.

Troxclair also insisted that her questions about the contracts did not indicate a mistrust of city staff or of the nonprofits to which it was allocating funds. She added that staff had done a good job responding to her questions, which she said were “reasonable.”

“And of course, I think we have fabulous nonprofits in Austin,” she added. “I personally contribute my own money to many of them, and that’s the way that I prefer to do it rather than through the government.”

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