Dubuque County residents who had concerns about the county’s handing over administration of its low-income assistance program to a local nonprofit likely took little comfort in the information learned when the TH combed through 250 county emails on the subject. If anything, those concerns grew deeper.
In August, on a 2-1 vote, county supervisors transferred administration of the program and gave a $30,000 contract to Resources Unite. The state-mandated program providing indigent residents with assistance on items such as utility payments and burial expenses in 2013 moved under the purview of the county’s Veterans Affairs Commission.
That transition raised serious questions on its own. Then TH reporters made a Freedom of Information Act request for any county supervisors’ emails on the subject, and the questions and concerns multiplied.
What the emails brought into clear focus was that supervisors Jay Wickham and Dave Baker fully intended to give the contract to Resources Unite and its director, Josh Jasper, before they ever took it before the public, let alone solicit bids. Yet they never established clear expectations of the service the agency would provide. The emails show Baker outlined his expectations to Jasper after the vote approving the change.
It’s also clear that Jasper had significant questions about what the role entailed. Emails show Jasper asking basic questions about the administration of the program after the transition. Clearly, Jasper and his agency were not nearly as prepared for the transfer as Wickham claimed them to be.
The emails showed that Randy Rennison, the county’s director of veterans affairs, was so upset by the process, neither he nor his staff would help with the transition. That’s a bit disappointing, given it could negatively impact clients, but Rennison was clearly frustrated. Wickham said Resources Unite was fully prepared to take on the program, so Rennison stepped back. Not the ideal way to handle a transition, and one that might have been avoided with a better approach.
In response to TH questions about the no-bid contract, Wickham vehemently defended the process, noting that the county has other contracts with nonprofits and they are not normally put out for bid. He also said supervisors do not typically have county contracts reviewed by the county attorney’s office.
That’s true. But doing things the way they’ve always been done isn’t necessarily the best practice.
Last year, county voters elected Ann McDonough, who had campaigned on the platform that she would examine county practices, plan strategically and demand transparency. Yet McDonough’s concerns about this process were never addressed.
All this is not to say that outsourcing general assistance to a nonprofit is a bad idea.
When government is duplicating a service provided in the private sector, it’s worth examination. There are agencies in our community that work with low-income citizens daily, trying to find assistance for them. Somehow (though we don’t know how) county officials determined Resources Unite was the best agency to take that on. And that might work out just fine; time will tell.
But a good outcome doesn’t negate a lousy process.