Point Austin: Hard Choices

City Hall embarks on the bumpy road to social services funding

Point Austin
One of the most inspiring and distressing rituals at City Hall is the annual March of the Social Service Organizations. It's not a rigidly disciplined or even official affair, and it mainly involves a trail of directors and other spokespeople approaching the City Council public microphone at budget time (just getting up to speed this year) to plead for the special services they provide to the most vulnerable Austin citizens: the elderly and indigent, the uninsured, the homeless, needy students and their families ... all those folks clinging to the frayed and fraying threads of the "social safety net."

It's an inspiring parade because it highlights all those organizations still stoutly defending the notion that we are our brother's and sister's keepers, amidst a social system largely designed to undermine that belief. And it's a distressing one, because there are never enough resources to go around – not only leaving behind plenty of deserving people, but effectively putting those folks dedicated to good causes in competition with one another for the same city support. Somebody's always going to go without.

The annual ritual recently began again, although this year with a difference. For the first time in a decade or more – nobody is quite sure how long it's been – the city is attempting to review the entire social service contract process; establish new, "objective" program standards; and in theory open up the available funds to new groups of program applicants rather than simply adjusting and renewing contracts with long-tenured programs. As you can imagine, it's not going to be an uncontroversial or painless transition, and the fur has already begun to fly. Add to the obvious applicant apprehensions the current election campaign tension on the council dais, and you can understand that things are likely to get hotter before they cool down.

Speak No Evil

I'll leave aside for another day the relative merits of the various programs – that winnowing process has only just begun, and while some venerable and worthy programs (e.g., the Austin Children's Shelter) have been omitted from city staff's initial recommendations to council (presented last week), the shape of council's final decisions remains far from clear and is still under review. Last year, council gave staff five priorities derived from the city's comprehensive plan – safety net/infrastructure, transition from poverty, problem prevention, comprehensive support, enrichment – and asked them to develop a process and matrix that would judge programs within those priorities. (For more details, see "Scaling the Pyramid," Oct. 15, 2010.)

But the process had scarcely begun before controversy erupted – not directly over the staff recommendations, but over the process itself and who gets to advocate for the eventual decisions. Most dramatically, Austin Interfaith held a presser and photo op at City Hall with members' mouths taped shut – to suggest their gagging by the city's anti-lobbying rules. Since 2007, all potential city contracts (as social services contracts indeed are) are subject to the anti-lobbying ordinance, with strict and fairly broad prohibitions on "respondents" (applicants, or anyone associated with applicants) communicating with city staff or officials (e.g., council members) on behalf of or against any contract during the contract review period, which lasts nearly the entire year following application.

AI itself doesn't get money from the city, but it has been historically supportive of certain programs (primarily education-based projects like Capital IDEA, which was left off the staff list) that it would like to be able to support with member input. Not unreasonably, the group complains that the ban on "lobbying" is too broad, because it potentially restricts citizens from even talking to their elected representatives about these issues. (Where have we heard this before?) "This is a democracy," Oralia Garza de Cortes told me. "It doesn't work without the people's voice."

The Driven Snow

That seems simple enough. On the other hand, I'm not so naive as to believe that there are no political or financial rivalries among social service program operators, just as among demolition or recycling contractors (to the city's recent embarrassment) – and such rivalries can readily enter the backstage arena, which is what the anti-lobbying ordinance is, in purest theory, intended to prevent. I spoke to several council members about the dilemma – Laura Morrison, Sheryl Cole, and Randi Shade, who chairs the Public Health and Human Services Committee. All three insisted that the review process has just begun and that "much work needs to be done" concerning the contract matrix before any final decisions are made later this year, and current contracts will continue until early- or mid-2012.

As for the public process, Cole said she is focusing for now on "what's allowed" – and that's an upcoming public committee meeting (now scheduled for May 25) at which any citizen can speak on the programs without fear of violating the ordinance. Reportedly everybody also agrees that the consequent council review, tentatively scheduled for the next day, will in fact not be happening for a while.

Shade has been the committee chair on this process, and I asked if she felt she had run into a buzz saw. "There wasn't any way to do it without running into a buzz saw," she said. "We're not buying widgets or pencils." She emphasized that council is fully aware of the importance of these services and of public review. "We're not going to make decisions without getting significant input about what are the impacts," she said. "We're not doing this because we want to cut funding; we're doing this because we want the money for this spent as well as we possibly can – and if we want to make a case during the budget process for additional funding, we will have the rationale for it. 'Here's what it would buy, and here's what it would mean for the community.'"

The anti-lobbying uproar is also another City Hall lesson in the limits of both good intentions and "objective" processes. The spending of public money is always a political decision, and you can't write a magic law that will make the politics disappear.

That won't stop many folks from still attempting it.

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social service contracts, Austin Children's Shelter, Austin Interfaith, Sheryl Cole, Randi Shade

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