Why a Modesto nonprofit that helps disabled faces loss of city contract to outsider

United Cerebral Palsy of Stanislaus County for two decades has taught jobs skills to developmentally disabled adults by having them clean, repair and maintain the benches at city bus stops, with many of them building on the skills they learn to get jobs with local businesses.

But UCP Executive Director Keenon Krick fears this partnership between his nonprofit and Modesto is over as the city is poised to hire Florida-based Creative Outdoor Advertising of America to maintain the roughly 250 Modesto Area Express benches and provide the city with more money.

Krick said he understands Modesto needs to use a competitive process in awarding contracts but said the city also needs to consider the benefits of using a local nonprofit that provides job training for the disabled and hires local companies to create the advertisements.

“This is about employing individuals with disabilities who otherwise would not have the ability to be employed,” he said. “... Looking at it from the human factor, we are giving opportunities to individuals. These individuals want to work and give back to the community.”

Modesto awarded United Cerebral Palsy its bus bench franchise under a series of contracts over the last 20 years, with the last five-year contract ending Dec. 31.

UCP leases the benches from Modesto (UCP paid the city $14,400 last year) for the right to sell advertising on the benches and inside MAX buses. UCP also is responsible for cleaning, maintaining and repairing the benches as well as picking up trash at the bus stops, saving Modesto the expense of doing that itself.

UCP gets about $85,000 a year through the ads, which provide the bulk of the $140,000 it takes to operate its bus bench program. The program employs about two dozen disabled people who are paid minimum wage and work up to 20 hours a week. The disabled workers are paired with job coaches. The other expenses include materials and supplies for the benches.

Krick said the people in the program learn soft skills, including how to work as part of a team, and about a quarter to nearly half are able to go on and get hired by local companies each year. He said some of these workers keep their jobs for years.

Modesto issued what is called a request for proposals a few months ago for a new contract for the bus benches. For the first time, UCP had competition, with Creative Outdoor also submitting a proposal. The city evaluated the proposals and is recommending Creative Outdoor.

Krick said UCP offered to pay the city $18,000 annually to lease the benches and said he heard Creative Outdoor offered twice as much, which would be $36,000. He said that is not a significant difference and he was not aware of any problems with UCP workers.

City spokesman Thomas Reeves confirmed both proposals were very strong and the decision came down to money. He declined to provide specifics because a new contract has not been awarded. He said this matter could go to the City Council’s Finance Committee in February and then to full council in March.

“There is no question that UCP’s work has been stellar,” Reeves said.

But he said Modesto needs to make financially sound decisions. While not providing specifics until there is a contract, Reeves said it could bring in substantially more revenue for the city.

Creative Outdoor provides services for about 250 local governments and transit systems in the United States and Canada, according to company president David Gray.

While he declined to speak about Modesto because his company and the city are in contract talks, Gray said his company provides significant improvements in terms of products, services and revenue to a local government or transit agency.

When asked whether Creative Outdoor could hire the UCP workers, Gray said his company plans on speaking with United Cerebral Palsy but said there are no guarantees. “In order to live up to our obligation to the city,” he said, “we need a strong financial environment.”

Krick addressed the City Council at its Dec. 12 meeting and plans on speaking at the Jan. 22 meeting. But it may be of little use.

While the council does not not have to follow staff’s recommendation to award the contract to Creative Outdoor it must — according to the request for proposals — base its decision solely on the factors in the proposals. Those factors are the technical ability to provide the service and provide the city with revenue.

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.