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Heated discussion leads to no action taken by lawmakers for DHS' contracts

Arkansas Department of Human Services

A discussion turned heated today among lawmakers while they were tasked with reviewing a contract for a new provider for the state's youth services facilities.

After about an hour and a half of discussions, lawmakers motioned to not review the contract. The simple answer, too many questions were left unanswered or weren't answered clearly. The state has been using the same two providers for about 15 years; Consolidated Youth Services and South Arkansas Youth Services run seven Department of Human Services’ Youth Services facilities.

Since February 2008, there have been no open bids to run the facilities until recently when a new provider, Youth Opportunity Investments won the bid. YOI is expected to cost the state $22.7 million, compared to CYS costing $6.5 million and SAYS costing $16 million according to DHS’ calculations. In total, through a 7-year contract, YOI's costs are nearly $160 million.

"They have enhanced therapy that they're going to provide our children, they had a very good technical program that they're going to put in place, but I also mentioned that in their bid they also looked at paying our employees a higher salary at these facilities which is going to help with retention,” said Keesa Smith, DHS’ Deputy Director.

Lawmakers were tasked with reviewing the newest contract on Tuesday, but not all lawmakers appeared to be on board with the switch, despite a current SAYS employee testifying.

"We are nothing more than a daycare in a warehouse,” said Jimmy Kersh, a teacher at the Mansfield facility. "There have been times, when staff have intentionally overstated disciplinary issues for some of our youth to extend their stay."

Instead of reviewing the contract, lawmakers chose to stop and do nothing.

"There are a number of questions related to the fact that the current providers have a historical good record and that really has not been taken into consideration, so I think it's given legislators pause for us to take a look at this, make sure the procurement process is looking at apples to apples comparisons,” said Representative Mark Lowery (R-39)

An interesting fact KATV discovered while covering this story, the procurement process used for bidding on this project doesn’t score a company or vendor’s performance. Channel 7 News has inquired about this and all state projects put out for bids, the spokesperson for the Department of Finances and Administration said he would respond by Wednesday.

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