City Hall Hustle: Do You Feel Lucky, PHHS?

Council committee takes next step in reorganizing social service funding

City Council's Public Health and Human Services Committee is kinda like the "Dirty Harry" Callahan of council committees: It gets all the toughest cases.

The fluoride menace? Check. Territorial pissing matches over the city's live animal outcomes program? Ditto. But in the midst of the commissioners' latest assignment – the ongoing rejiggering of city funding to local nonprofits and social service agencies – no one can suggest that they're feeling particularly lucky.

As the Hustle was wrapping for press on Wednesday, the committee was slated to take up the contracting discussion, including the request-for-proposals process that led to city staff's controversial recommendations: They propose continued funding for only 23 of 51 currently funded agencies, shutting out longtime service providers like Any Baby Can, Capital IDEA, and the Salvation Army.

The committee's actions should determine when the contracting talk returns to the entire council. But it's worth considering the distinctions between two members of the PHHS when the recos were initially presented at council's May 12 meeting – and what their differences in approach may reflect going forward.

"I found this quote from Theodore Roosevelt that I want to use right now because I think it's important for us to keep that in mind as we move forward," PHHS Chair Randi Shade said. "'In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.' And so we are not doing nothing. I don't think we're yet at the right thing, and we're going to be working really hard to make sure that we don't do the wrong thing. That's really the goal."

Shade said that some of the discord arising over the proposals was because the city was seeing the proverbial sausage-making. "I also want to remind the public who's watching and certainly all the organizations who are concerned that we're not, you know, a foundation that gets to sit in a room and have a really great retreat and use dots and decide what we want to prioritize and change our philosophy for funding and then come up with a great plan for execution. We aren't that way, because we're a public entity. We have to have this discussion, open. So you're hearing it as we're hearing it, and I don't know that people really realize that."

While Shade characterized the changes as an initial proposal subject to further revision (and hence, not as great a cause for alarm), her PHHS colleague Laura Morrison took a more pointed tack, criticizing a lack of input in the staff review. Saying that "what we have from the staff is an output of ... computations and formulas," Morrison argued that "what was missing from that was any identification of types of services, because there's a lot of services that can fit into 'transition out of poverty' or 'safety net' or 'problem prevention' [priorities initially defined by council]. So the concern that I have, or where I think we need the most amount of work now, is to look at a spread of the types of services that we have in the top scoring."

Elsewhere on the Boardwalk

While any decision on nonprofit contracting is still a way off, council has plenty to fill the gap this Thursday (May 26), taking up a dense 98-item agenda. While we're on the subject, Item 75 from lead sponsor Morrison would return $550,000 in unallocated social service funds from last year to the Health and Human Services Department; the item also calls for the city manager "to solicit recommendations from the Early Childhood Council on the types of programs needed to fill the gap in social services for Austin youth and bring back a report to Council by June 23."

Elsewhere, transportation measures account for much of the agenda. Items 64-67 combine $500,000 in TxDOT/federal funding with contributions from Capital Metro to install traffic sensors that will facilitate bus rapid-transit service – the kind that can "hold" lights for buses. Also, Item 73, from lead sponsor Lee Leffing­well, would open a free cell-phone waiting area (where people can wait until called to pick up passengers, now common at many airports) at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport no later than Jan. 1. Item 18 delivers an additional $70,000 to Casa­bella Architects (bringing its total contract to $2.65 million) to change signage of the semi-newly christened Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, plus perform a parking study for the MACC and the surrounding crowded Rainey Street area. And since the Lady Bird Lake Boardwalk technically meets transportation criteria (according to bond spending, at least), Item 31 inks an agreement between the city and the Trail Foundation for the latter to contribute $3 million in donations toward the city's boardwalk project.

Catch the Hustle on the go at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More City Hall Hustle
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
City Hall Hustle: The Hustle Bids Farewell ...
To the beating hearts of a great city

Wells Dunbar, Dec. 30, 2011

City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time
City Hall Hustle: The Fires This Time
Austin's feverish summer a tinderbox for rumination

Wells Dunbar, Sept. 9, 2011


City Councilsocial services, social services, public health and human services, Randi Shade, Laura Morrison

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle