Everyone hates paperwork. Everyone really hates doing the same paperwork twice. And when you make people do the same grant proposal paperwork twice and at the end of it some of them still don't get any money, well, that's when people get really mad.
That's what happened to the community-based organizations that run education and prevention programs aimed at quelling Alameda County's raging HIV/AIDS infection rate. Every three years, these organizations apply to the county for money for their outreach programs. It's a lengthy and complicated process. The application itself is more than 35 pages long, and the county's HIV Prevention Planning Council spends about a year deciding how to choose the winners.
This year, the paperwork was due in March, with funds to be awarded at the beginning of the new fiscal year in July. But when one community organization learned that its proposal had been tossed out on a technicality, the group's executive director raised such a ruckus that that the county agreed to give it a second chance -- by throwing out everyone's applications and making them start over.
The news was received poorly by HIV-prevention groups, who said the extra work was untimely and unfair. There were even whispered allegations that the organization in question, the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, had played the race card, threatening legal action over a perceived bias against organizations that primarily represent African Americans. Whatever the case, starting the process over was a hassle for almost everybody. The new application demanded enough small revisions that groups couldn't simply resubmit their original proposal, and that delayed the grant money's arrival until October. Even though the county agreed to give current grant recipients a ninety-day funding extension to cover the cap, the delay is causing plenty of problems for HIV service providers. Without knowing if their funding will resume, they have essentially had to freeze their planning process for the coming season, and they are uncertain of their ability to continue outreach programs, design new ones, hire staff, or reassure their employees that they have jobs past October. Since funding awards won't be announced until September 4, local HIV-prevention educators are on the edge of their seats.
Alameda County's decision to throw out everyone's proposals so upset providers that a half-dozen agencies banded together to draft an angry letter to Ron Person, the director of the county's Office of AIDS Administration. "This situation is not just inconvenient for providers," the letter noted. "This delay harms the communities we serve. This is the most important thing. ... What will happen if an agency complains again? What considerations can you give the agencies that responded appropriately to avoid putting them in disadvantaged and penalized conditions?"
Their complaint is not entirely theoretical. For example, administrators at La Clinica de la Raza in Oakland's Fruitvale district may have to lay off two people and scrap two new outreach programs. And as Anna Dorman, the clinic's health education manager, points out, having to resubmit the funding application ate up time and money, especially for a nonprofit with already limited budget. "To put together two proposals is a considerable amount of work, and that means there's a cost to the agency -- all that people-time," Dorman says.
Or consider the fate of the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center in Hayward, which serves the medical needs of about 8,000 South County residents each year. Although the clinic's proposal had passed muster on the first round and was being considered for award money, on the second round employees who were rushing to resubmit the application failed to include some necessary paperwork, and the application was disqualified. Now the clinic will have to hunt for outside funding sources to support the two new programs it had hoped to staff with county money, one for intravenous drug users and sex workers, and one aimed at creating healthy families.
According to whispers from some prevention groups, the Sexual Minority Alliance, or SMAAC, was assured a second chance at the funding process because executive director Roosevelt Mosby threatened legal action over race discrimination. Person and Arnold Perkins, head of the county public health department, could not be reached for interviews. However, their next-in-command, Maria Aguilar, program director for the county's Office of HIV Prevention and Education, says she's never heard a lawsuit mentioned. Mosby himself was mildly evasive when asked if he threatened to sue: "I asked Mr. Perkins to give the whole issue to their attorney, but I don't remember launching that type of threat. I think it's the rumor mill."
Mosby says SMAAC's first application was screened out inappropriately because the grant instructions had not made it clear that all proposals needed to explain how the group would interact with one particular state program. Nor had it stated that applications could be thrown out for failure to comply. Mosby said that by complaining, he had hoped that SMAAC's application would be reinstated, not that everyone else would have to reapply. However, Mosby makes no apologies for his request. "I think that the county did what was necessary," he says. "We articulated a flaw in their process, and they did a corrective action."
But not everyone feels that way, and there's some angry talk about backroom deals. "A lot of people are reading this as guaranteeing that the people who complained in the first round get funded the second round," grumbles one healthcare organizer who wishes to remain anonymous. "The feeling is that the outcomes for funding in this county have already been decided and everything else is kind of token -- that the public health department already knows what it wants to happen and everything else is just for show."
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