Our View: Modesto must not put money ahead of people

Modesto nonprofit that helps the disabled with job training faces loss of city contract

A Modesto nonprofit, United Cerebral Palsy of Stanislaus County, that has cleaned, maintained and repaired benches at city bus stops through a job training program faces losing that work to a Florida company.
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A Modesto nonprofit, United Cerebral Palsy of Stanislaus County, that has cleaned, maintained and repaired benches at city bus stops through a job training program faces losing that work to a Florida company.

Talk about a public relations nightmare.

Modesto City Hall — no stranger to controversy — nearly stepped in it again by almost yanking a contract away from local disabled workers and giving it instead to a large out-of-state company promising to reward the city with more money.

Losing out would be United Cerebral Palsy of Stanislaus County, which employs a couple of dozen local adults with physical and developmental disabilities by having them clean and repair 248 bus benches throughout the city. For 20 years, the Modesto-based nonprofit has done a “stellar” job, in the words of a city spokesman, and its bid for a new five-year contract would bring City Hall $16,800 per year while allowing UCP to continue making up to $140,000 selling ads on bus benches.

That kind of money means a lot to UCP, whose clients aren’t employable otherwise. More important, the work builds their self-esteem and teaches them teamwork, and some gain the necessary skills to go on to jobs in the real world, as The Modesto Bee’s Kevin Valine reported in January. Some have cerebral palsy, as the name implies, but the group also serves people with autism, birth defects, brain injuries and any other sort of disability.

What could possibly ruin this arrangement?

Money, of course.

Florida-based Creative Outdoor Advertising, which openly boasts of being “by far the largest in our industry” in the United States and Canada, dangled a lot more money in front of City Hall in a recent bid: at least $37,500 a year, or nearly double UCP’s minimum guarantee of $16,800. And the big for-profit company would look into adding 213 benches at other bus stops, boosting advertising and the city’s take to as much as $113,475.

Creative Outdoor Advertising didn’t get to be the biggest and the baddest in North America by accident. They also promised to replace the city’s familiar wood benches and concrete legs with fancy new seating featuring — hold on to something when you read this — “temperature-control thermo-plastic coating which is ideal for all weather conditions.”

“We need to make the MAX system feel more comfortable and modern, to get more people on the bus,” says a staff report to the City Council’s Finance Committee, urging members to embrace the Florida company. “These new benches will improve the image of the MAX system, and provide a fresh look.”

Staff framed the proposed change as being required by law, indicating the council would have no choice but to award the contract to Creative Outdoor Advertising.

But The Bee’s January story struck a nerve with readers, prompting letters to the editor painting the city as short-sighted and heartless.

It’s shocking that city officials would consider money more important than local people who for 20 years have done everything that’s been asked of them. It’s disturbing to think our leaders would willingly divert badly needed income from a nonprofit serving our own people, a nearly voiceless segment of society, and send most of it to Florida, just so the city can get a bigger taste of the profit.

Fortunately, it turns out some of our leaders do have a heart. The council’s Kristi Ah You, Bill Zoslocki and Tony Madrigal weren’t sold on staff’s pitch when the issue recently came to the council’s Finance Committee, and they put off formulating a recommendation to the full seven-member City Council. It’s supposed to return in Monday’s committee meeting, but city spokesman Thomas Reeves said that may be too soon.

It’s possible, Reeves said, that staff could scrap the bidding process and start over.

That’s exactly what should happen, said UCP Executive Director Keenan Krick. It’s clear to him that the Florida firm wowed Modesto staff with promises that the local nonprofit wasn’t even asked about.

Rebidding at least would put all competitors on the same playing field. That’s the fair thing to do, and the right thing to do.