By Erica C. Barnett
More than a dozen homeless service providers have written a letter to the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s implementation board, as well as agency CEO Marc Dones, asking for action after the agency has failed, for a second year, to sign contracts and pay agencies on time.
The letter, which is signed by the leaders of Solid Ground, YouthCare, the Multiservice Center, and other housing and shelter providers, says the KCRHA needs to undertake “major reforms and changes in procedure … to ensure that our critical human services infrastructure doesn’t break under pressure, and that service agencies can be adequately supported to make progress on our shared goals of ending homelessness in our community.”
Providers also showed up at the KCRHA’s implementation board meeting Wednesday to make it clear that their concerns have not been addressed.
In response to the letter, KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said, “we appreciate the thoughtful recommendations from providers and are reviewing how to best integrate their feedback.”
The KCRHA oversees more than 300 contracts totaling more than $110 million. As of May 9, the authority had signed just over 150 of those contracts and paid invoices worth a total of around $15 million, according to Martens. The Seattle Times wrote last week about the contract delays.
In internal emails, the KCRHA has attributed the contract delays, in part, to providers requesting changes to their new, non-negotiable “boilerplate” contracts, as well as a complex new software system called Fluxx that has “bugs”—for example, it doesn’t notify providers when it’s their turn to look at a document they’re working on with KCRHA staff, and deletes users’ work if they have to go back and make a change. Martens said providers can set up notifications through Fluxx, but said the KCRHA is “actively working on stabilizing Fluxx to improve provider experience, and will also be evaluating other potential systems.”
The providers are asking the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.”
The new form contracts reportedly include a reduction in the amount the KCRHA will pay for agency operations, or overhead (from 15 to 10 percent of the overall contract budget) and changes to contract requirements that could impact agencies’ ability to secure funding from other sources to do work that is partly funded by the KCRHA. Update: After publication, Martens contacted us to say this information, which came from a homeless service provider, was incorrect and that the new contracts do not limit indirect costs to 10 percent.
PubliCola has asked KCRHA for a copy of its new boilerplate contract language.
For more than four months, service providers big and small have been using up their reserves, even going into debt, to keep programs going; the Low-Income Housing Institute, for example, has “floated” more than $3 million, while YouthCare, a smaller agency, used up most of its existing $1 million line of credit to pay staffers and keep programs going. The Downtown Emergency Service Center and Compass Housing, which decided last year it would no longer contract with KCRHA to provide emergency shelter during freezing weather, also experienced payment delays.
“Operating reserves exist for emergencies, like responding to the Covid-19 pandemic; they are not there to cushion what should be a straightforward administrative function from KCRHA,” the letter says. “For some small organizations it could result in layoffs, or worse, put them out of business.”
Late payments to service providers are not strictly a KCRHA phenomenon. Before the KCRHA took over the region’s homelessness system, service providers that contracted with the city’s Human Services Department often operated without contracts for months as well; in May 2021, for example, outreach providers that had already gone unpaid for months declined to sign contracts that included new requirements that were incompatible with their organizational missions.
In their letter, the providers ask the implementation board to delay plans to rebid and re-procure all homeless service provider contracts, planned for 2024, for at least a year “so that the KCRHA can demonstrate that it can manage its existing workload and normalize invoice and payment practices and timelines.” In April, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness called the KCRHA’s timeline for re-procuring its contracts plan “high risk, and said it “should only be initiated once core functions for contracting are solidly in place at KCRHA.”
The letter also requests immediate actions to make sure that providers will get paid in future years, regardless of whether KCRHA has finalized their contracts. For example, they write, “KCRHA should automatically extend all contracts through the first quarter of each year,” replacing these first-quarter contracts with the final contract once it’s signed. In addition, they write, the authority should pay 75 percent of invoices up front, instead of waiting until they’ve gone through a detailed review that one provider said can amount to a type of audit.
For delays that require providers to take on debt to stay in operation, the letter continues, the “KCRHA should compensate providers for these financial losses that are tied to administrative delays.”
In the long run, the providers say, the KCRHA should take on the responsibility for proactively contacting providers to let them know about delays, update the implementation board regularly about contract execution and delays, allow providers to consolidate contracts that are similar or duplicative, such as contracts for the same type of shelter in different locations, and include cost of living pay increases in all contracts,