Centre County commissioners disagree on contract, oversight of independent consultant at issue

Centre County Commissioners Michael Pipe, Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos during a meeting in Bellefonte.
Centre County Commissioners Michael Pipe, Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos during a meeting in Bellefonte. CDT file photo

A disagreement among county commissioners over approving a contract between the county and an independent contractor led to a 2-1 vote Tuesday.

The contract would approve Service Access and Management Inc. as an independent consultant and manager for the financial and administrative services performed by the county’s Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention and Drug and Alcohol office.

Commissioner Michael Pipe was the dissenting vote.

The contract with SAM, Pipe said, would be like privatizing the financial operations of the MH/ID/EI/DA office. He said he wanted to ensure that the board and staff retained the ability to make decisions about state and federal funding to provide services.

“What kind of control or oversight would the board have with SAM?” he asked.

According to MH/ID/EI/DA administrator Tom McDermott, oversight with SAM would continue as it has been, only day-to-day operations would be handled by a private contractor rather than by county employees.

“We set up a lot of protocols and procedures in the last year and a half to be even more diligent in reporting to the board and state,” he said. “It will all remain in place.”

Pipe said the county found itself in an unfortunate situation in 2012 when state budget cuts reduced the amount of funding to the MH/ID/EI/DA office. The fiscal leader at the time “wasn’t the best,” resulting in a shortage of $400,000 that needed to come out of the county budget.

The argument at the time, he said, was if leadership were to change, the county risked hiring another individual who was no better at the job as the last person. The county contracted with SAM, which was tasked with training staff.

“Now they’re saying they can’t do it,” he said, “and they’ll take over the work.”

Pipe said he was frustrated that SAM appears to think the contract approval is a foregone conclusion, as they started advertising for Centre County director of financial operations on Friday.

“How can we trust them that they’re going to make decisions and keep us in the loop and respect us when we want to go certain ways?” he said.

Vice Chairman Chris Exarchos disagreed, saying SAM knew the county was seeking a contract with the understanding that it can be approved or denied.

“The fact that they’re trying to be proactive and ahead of the curve and be prepared should we approve it — I’m not going to knock them for that,” he said.

According to Exarchos, the contract lasts three years but has a 60-day period in which the county can back out if business is not being handled to the county’s expectation.

Fees for the contract for the 2015-16 fiscal year total $472,715; $498,170 for 2016-17; and 523,634 for 2017-18 — about a 5 percent increase each year.

County Administrator Tim Boyde said that, from a salaries and benefits approach, the 5 percent increase would cover any increases in health care and retirement costs and salaries.

McDermott recommended moving ahead with the contract and potentially providing more services through better financial direction.

Chairman Steve Dershem said he was proud of the MH/ID/EI/DA staff, who have done an “amazing job putting together how they deal with mental health.”