Legislators meeting in committee today raised questions about the advertising budget enmeshed in grants that the Department of Human Services’ behavioral health division has awarded to address teenage drinking and prescription drug use.
Though no one said so outright, the issue was Advantage Communications, a company owned by Michael Steele, former Sen. Tracy Steele’s brother. It reaps a windfall from the grants, to be awarded over five years. Michael Steele’s company will receive nearly half the grants awarded to a prevention services program ($22,500 a year out of each of 17 $40,000 grants) and a third of the grants awarded to a youth leadership program ($5,000 a year out of 30 $15,000 grants).
The grants were funded by a federal grant of $1,766,772 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; only the $15,000 grants were on the Arkansas Legislative Council’s review subcommittee agenda today and were the only item on the agenda save one that legislators had questions about.
Rep. John Burris asked the DBHS program manager Sharron Mims how the $15,000 was divvied up, and she responded with a description of what the grant would do. Both Burris and Mims knew, no doubt, that Burris wanted her to acknowledge that a contract with Advantage Communications was a required expenditure for each grantee, but there was a lot of tap dancing instead. Mims maintained she did not know who the principal figure at Advantage Communications was, and said the company was selected for all the grants because DHBS liked the job it did on the Health Department’s Stamp Out Smoking campaign and it wanted the advertising to be uniform. Steele’s name never came up.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, however, didn’t pussyfoot around when it came her time to speak. She said Advantage Communications was “one of the best African-American advertising companies in the state” and that by advertising the grant did not mean TV and radio ads, but could include such things as hiring someone to pass out informational flyers at churches and printing the flyers. (After the meeting, Burris said Chesterfield’s position underscored his point, wondering why professional services were needed. However, he said the issue was “no big deal,” though he characterized it as a “silly government contract I wouldn’t do if I was in charge.”)
Sen. Eddie Joe Williams wanted to know if the programs had been evaluated and were doing what they were supposed to do. Mims said there were previous programs funded through SAMHSA, but the grants at issue were new. She said all had to do with “environmental strategies,” a “strategic planning process,” “capacity building” and “logic models,” and if there was an answer in there to how well the SAMHSA grants worked I didn’t catch it.
Melissa Pettus of Pulaski County Youth Services told me earlier today that her agency has been awarded both grants. The youth leadership grant is for teenagers in 9th to 12th grades; the prevention program is for kids in 6th through 8th grades. The younger kids will be a feeder group for the older group, and they will create the advertisement campaigns themselves, designing billboards and murals and the like. One of the projects the groups will spread the word on will be “drug take-back days” with local law enforcement, to get unused prescription drugs out of the house and disposed. Getting the warning out about alcohol and drug abuse via advertising is “what they [the grantmakers] want us to focus on mainly,” Pettus said.
For the first year the grants are issued, Advantage Communications’ take will be $532,000. Tracy Steele now works as director of DHS’ division of youth services, but the decision to use his brother’s company for work in a different DHS division came before his work for DHS.
That other question raised in the committee: Burris wanted to know why it would cost $110,000 to hire “expert services” to recruit the next chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Monticello. U of A System President Don Bobbitt said national search companies knew the candidate pool, and that the money also paid for travel and lodging of candidates to be interviewed.