Los Alamos County Councilors, from left, Randy Ryti, Katrina Martin, David Izraelevitz, Sara Scott, Pete Sheehey, James Robinson and Antonio Maggiore. Photo Courtesy LAC
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The award of a $1 million contract to Las Cumbres Community Services Inc. was postponed by Los Alamos County Council last week pending Council’s approval of a gap analysis performed by Kulik Strategic Advisors for the County’s Community Services Department. The agenda item took several hours as more than 70 letters of support were read into the record for Family Strengths Network, which also submitted a proposal for the contract. Family Strengths Network has had a relationship with the County for some 30 years and their current contract ends June 30.
The meeting lasted until well past midnight when Council James Robinson finally noted that the discussion had “gone around and around” and made the motion to postpone approval.
Acting Community Services Department manager Linda Matteson earlier explained that the CSD is responsible for providing a wide variety of cultural, recreational and social services and that the County looks often to outside agencies to provide these services. The proposed contract in question was for family resources, support and parent education programs.
Matteson said the County has many agencies that provide the same services for many years over many cycles of procurements and agreements.
“Even when we have had an ongoing service provider we cannot assume that that agency is the only one that can provide the services or that there are no other vendors that would like the opportunity to submit a proposal,” she said. “When we enter each procurement cycle, we enter with a blank sheet of paper.”
Matteson said the request for proposals for this particular contract was written with numerous community conversations, provider feedback, examination of industry best standards and practices, community health council discussions and reports concerning gaps and needs in the community. She said the RFP was written to discuss the results and goals and not the actual programs.
“We asked for primarily evidence-based programs including drop-in options, programs that focus on teaching and sharing information necessary to promote cognitive language and socio-emotional development in children, and providing families with assistance in arranging needs to ensure a child’s long-term emotional, emotional and academic success,” she said.
Matteson said that using the County’s procurement, Las Cumbres Community Services Inc. was determined in writing by the committee to be the most advantageous to the County. She said the Las Cumbres organizational structure is very broad and deep. She said Las Cumbres has been providing services in Los Alamos and Northern New Mexico since 1970. She noted the specialized skills and certifications of Las Cumbres staff, from clinical social workers, certified lactation counselors, licensed occupational therapists, substance abuse treatment counselors, and staff with Master’s degrees in social work and counseling as well as a licensed mental health counselor.
“This RFP like all RFPs is a competition. When we’re using taxpayer funds it’s incumbent on staff to encourage fair and open competition to ensure we are spending the funds most effectively. There were two responsive proposals but when scored using the defined criteria, Las Cumbres was selected,” Matteson said.
She acknowledged it is a very difficult decision to change away from a longtime provider, “especially in this case when the current provider is doing a good job and there haven’t been complaints or issues”.
“We have all seen the many letters of support for FSN and heard about the positive results of their services. The procurement process is a competition to find the best service provider for the value for the County for the taxpayers. This kind of change is never easy,” Matteson said.
Councilor Antonio Maggiore voiced concern about the County’s procurement procedure which does not allow Council to see the second proposal, complaining that Council was being asked to decide on something when they only have one option and don’t have all the information to make the final decision.
County Attorney Alvin Leaphart explained that the County’s procurement process is established by ordinance and state law. It does not allow the review of all bids, just the one selected by the procurement committee to avoid keeping the award of public money from being a purely political decision, Leaphart said.
Council members discussed the criteria in the RFP and the reasons Las Cumbres had been selected by the committee for a long time before realizing that the outcome of the needs analysis could show whether they should be leaning towards providing social programs or more clinically based programs and deciding that the contract would have to wait to be approved. The option of reissuing one of more RFPs for the services was also discussed.
When the Council meeting continued at noon on Wednesday, a letter from Las Cumbres was read into the record which stated that if the only way for Las Cumbres to continue with the new contract means that the FSN will no longer receive funding, they are considering withdrawing from the process.
“We very much want to provide the many valuable services as outlined in our proposal, and have been working hard amidst the circumstances of the Covid pandemic to ready our teams to deliver them. But given the clear opposition from the community to our expansion under current terms, the only way we are willing to accept a contract is under a clear collaborative agreement between Las Cumbres and FSN that establishes a mutual support relationship,” the letter states. “For a determined interim period, during which the Council and County can execute an additional RFP or other processes, Las Cumbres could establish FSN as a subcontractor and support their capacity to continue providing prevention-based contract services while Las Cumbres initiates other distinct programming as outlined in our proposal.”
FSN executive director Carie Fanning told the Los Alamos Reporter Monday that the County’s contract with FSN ends June 30 but that she is confident there are enough reserves to operate through the fiscal year. She said she will be meeting with Las Cumbres officials on Friday.
Councilor David Izraelevitz chatted with the Los Alamos Reporter about the Council meeting and the FSN issue and the RFP process. He noted that as a community, Los Alamos is fortunate that social service contracts have been regularly fulfilled by highly qualified organizations, and they are often the sole or the clearly superior bidder. He said then there is no controversy about continuing the relationship and the Council is relieved of any heartburn.
“The difficult situation is when there is a competitive bid by multiple entities and the County is faced with the responsibility of considering the unseating of an incumbent. If we didn’t take this responsibility seriously, and didn’t allow the possibility of changing contractors at times, then there would be no logic to having formal requests for proposals, a selection committee, etc. We would always continue with the current contractor,” Izraelevitz said.
He said even though there is no reason to suspect foul play, just skipping over the formal selection and procurement process “turns awarding contracts into a political, not a technical decision, with all the resulting opportunities for insider deals and corruption”.
“In this solicitation, we followed the exact same process as we have for every other contract, as mandated by our procurement laws. I have no reason to assume anything other than a thoughtful and careful analysis of each proposal and a reasoned argument for one bidder over the others was presented. I wasn’t about to support a change to this business model and start down this road without reviewing the serious ramifications of changing this process. We can’t change our rules midstream. I don’t think our citizens would want that either,” Izraelevitz said.
He noted that he is personally very familiar with both Las Cumbres and Family Strengths Network, not only as a councilor, but also as a parent and through his wife’s work as an occupational therapist for Los Alamos Public Schools.
“Both organizations bring great assets to our community, and I hope that they find a way that they can continue to work together, bringing their relative expertise to our community. I felt that the letter that the executive director of Las Cumbres presented as public comment was encouragingly pointing in this direction. Hopefully, the upcoming social services gap analysis report will help everyone make the right decisions,” he said.