By Ariele Vaccaro
On Friday Aug. 14, Milwaukee County Judge David Hanscher threw out a temporary restraining order from the Social Development Commission (SDC). The organization had filed the motion to keep the County from moving forward with a new energy assistance contract for Milwaukee nonprofit UMOS.
An emergency action, made Aug. 5 by Director of Health and Human Services Hector Colon, took the contract from SDC and gave it to UMOS without approval from the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. Under this new arrangement, UMOS will share the responsibility of dealing out energy assistance with Community Advocates — the organization that currently shares this job with SDC.
According to a statement from the Office of Chris Abele, the County couldn’t afford to wait any longer for board approval.
“Because the County Board has deferred approval of these contracts, we had to execute an emergency contract now to ensure that we can continue to provide this critical service to County residents without interruption,” read the statement.
Late Tuesday, SDC decided to file the restraining order, requesting that a Milwaukee circuit court judge keep the county from moving forward with the new UMOS and Community Advocates contract.
The lawsuit came after a meeting last month during which the Board of Supervisors turned down Colon’s call to award one-year contracts to UMOS and Community Advocates. On July 30, the board went on to approve a motion by District 5 Supervisor Martin Weddle that would have granted SDC a six-month extension to its current contract which ends at the end of September.
“This is something that we wanted,” said District 2 County Supervisor Khalif Rainey.
According to Weddle, the six months would have been used to reach out to the public for commentary on a new energy assistance model.
Employing emergency authority, Colon went ahead to award UMOS and Community Advocates one-year contracts. However, SDC President and CEO George Hinton said that such a move is unlawful. In a press release, SDC cited a state statute which requires that any transaction valuing more than $300,000 be approved by the county board.
According the the same release, Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske refused to deal out the requested amount of funding for UMOS and Community Advocates because it did not have the board’s approval.
Judge Hanscher heard the SDC’s motion for a restraining order on Friday afternoon. He denied it.
The move to take away SDC’s contract came after apparent complaints of long lines for energy assistance services. SDC argued that this problem would continue with any provider because many of their clients’ power is shut off around the same times of the year. Colon expressed, via a statement, that he believes SDC shows “less flexibility” and that UMOS is better prepared to serve the elderly community and those who speak foreign languages.
Even before the board’s affirmative vote to extend SDC’s contract, the commission submitted a proposal to renew its energy assistance contract.
A panel reviewed a number of proposals from different organizations seeking the contract. A “diverse panel of experts” chose UMOS over SDC on two occasions, according to the statement from Abele’s office.
SDC said that it appealed the decision by the panel and won.
If the new contracts do go through, Weddle worries that Milwaukee residents who have received their energy assistance through SDC for years will be confused when they are required to seek services with the new contract holders.
Hinton agreed, noting that there should be more time allotted for “vetting” of the new energy assistance model, even if SDC is not contracted again.
“We really want to protect that, regardless of who does it in the future, that it’s done right,” said Hinton.
It looks like SDC will be doing just that. In a statement following Judge Hanscher’s throwing away of its motion, SDC said it would be reaching out to UMOS to help with the program transfer in fall.
“Moving forward, we will work with the new administrators of the contract to make the transition for energy assistance clients as smooth as possible.”
SDC currently serves 73 percent of Milwaukee County households that utilize energy assistance. The remainder are served by Community Advocates.