As part of an ongoing tussle over the fate of a state-run call center expected to create some 200 jobs, city council members in Concord and Richmond will discuss the same item at their respective meetings on Tuesday night: How to guarantee the center is placed in their town.
The call center is part of California’s move to comply with Affordable Care Act regulations and provide information for Californians on health insurance changes and plans. The goal is to have the center up and running by June, said Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff.
The Health Benefits Exchange Commission (HBEX), a five person board appointed by the state legislature and governor to help Californians access affordable health care, announced on January 18 that it intended to award one of the three state-run call centers to Contra Costa County. The commission laid out specific criteria that the county’s chosen location must meet, including that the center must be in an “area of persistent unemployment,” have a large pool of employable workers, nearby available public transportation and have two dedicated training rooms and eight closed offices.
According to a memo from staff in the Contra Costa Public Works Department, the minimum requirements also include specifics on the type of phone cabling that should run through the center, that cubicles should be single-occupancy and there should be direct, securable access to the “main point of entry” for telephone repair crews to get into the building.
After an initial review of a few sites in January, the board of supervisors narrowed down the possible location of the center to Richmond and Concord.
Joseph Garaventa, the owner of the Concord site—located at 2500 Bates Avenue—submitted a proposal to charge the county $1.9 million in rent and occupancy expenses for a three-year contract. But county staff estimated that the cost to the county to improve the property to meet the HBEX commission’s standards would take another $1.3 million, in addition to roughly $1 million more needed to buy furniture. County staff also found that two conference rooms would need to be built, along with a separate entrance for service access—but they did not put a specific cost estimate on these items.
The Concord site is currently wired with an older generation of phone cable, which according to the county staff’s report would need to be removed and re-wired with the appropriate cable. The price tag for that project, according to their estimates, is $557,000. In total, staff estimated that the Concord site would cost the county at least $4.2 million during the three-year lease term.
Richard Poe is the owner of the Richmond space proposed for the call center, which is located at 1450 Marina Way South. According to the county’s staff report, rent and occupancy expenses in Richmond would be higher by $15, 540 for the whole three-year period—putting it at $1,915,000—but the total cost would be $850,564 lower because the improvements needed for the property would be less expensive.
The Richmond site does not have any existing cabling, but according to the county staff report Poe’s three-year proposal included the cost for installation as part of the estimated occupancy expenses. The two items that would cost the county additional expenses are the installation of a sound system (the Concord site already has such a system in its building), which county staff estimates at $45,000 and installing a monitored-enry security system. The price for that is not estimated, but the same system is needed at the Concord site.
After considering rent and the expenditures needed to bring the Richmond site up to HBEX standards, the total cost for the three-year contract proposal is $3.4 million, according to the county staff report.
This difference in bids has councilmembers in Richmond upset that Concord is still being considered. Richmond Councilmember Jael Myrick—who along with Councilmember Jim Rogers, has added a call center item to the city council’s agenda for the last few meetings—said he is troubled that the call center wasn’t awarded to Richmond after the county’s staff’s report in February.
“There are politics at play,” Myrick said, in a phone interview last week. “The supervisors have more connections to Concord than Richmond.”
Myrick called Garaventa a “powerful political player” with lots of connections. “We need the 200 jobs,” he said. “If they pick the Concord site they’re voting to waste $850,000 of voters money to give to their friend.”
“I can understand why the supervisors would want it to be in their region,” Richmond councilmember Jovanka Beckles said. “But, when talking fairness and what’s right and integrity … then the right thing to do would bring it to Richmond.”
At Richmond’s February 19 city council meeting the council voted to send a letter to the county strongly encouraging the supervisors to vote for the Richmond site. During that discussion many councilmembers voiced frustration that Richmond might not win the call center. “When you look at the geographics we really only have two supervisors who identify with West County,” Councilmember Nat Bates said, “our own [Supervisor John Gioia] and maybe one other, Federal Glover, that serves portion of West County. So now, it looks like unless something occurs dramatically we may just get one vote.”
Salvatore Evola, Pittsburg’s vice mayor and the government relations spokesperson at Garaventa Enterprises, said that he did not see the issue as political maneuvering and that Garaventa is not being favored by anyone on the Board of Supervisors.
“I think everyone is trying to serve the county as a whole,” he said. He added that he and Garaventa think it would be better for the county to use the Concord site’s existing infrastructure—it’s cabling and cubicles—instead of spending money to purchase new items.
Poe said that his understanding of the situation was very different. He said the state guidelines as laid out by the HBEX commission are clear.
“When I was on the tour with the state they made it very specific that they needed CAT 6 wiring, natural light for their employees, cubicles with glass on top so supervisors could see employees and secure point of entry for servicers,” Poe said. “They had very specific, specific requirements.”
Richmond’s site, he said, is the best option because the community needs the jobs most and his bid was much cheaper. In addition, Poe said that at tonight’s city council meeting he is expecting the council to approve further assistance to secure the site for Richmond by voting to extend a loan to his company to cover the costs of purchasing the necessary cubicles. If approved, Poe will then re-pay the city back for the loan over a period that “might be as long as 25 years,” according to the updated staff report on the agenda item.
“After tonight we suspect we’ll be about one million and eight cheaper than Concord,” Poe said.
Mitchoff, whose district includes Concord, agreed with Evola that the issue is not political. She said she wants to make sure that the “minimum requirements” the county is using to evaluate the sites—like the specifications on cabling to cubicle size—are truly required by the HBEX commission. “This to me is a fiscal issue, not a political issue,” she said.
Another consideration for where to house the call center is unemployment rates—Richmond’s is at 13 percent and Concord’s is at 9 percent. But Mitchoff and Evola say that it’s not the individual cities’ unemployment rates that matter, it’s the county’s. Concord—they said—is in a better location to serve more people. “It is the best site for the majority of county residents, both in terms of location and transportation,” Mitchoff said.
“I stand with elected officials throughout the area who believe that it would serve more individuals [in Concord] than if it were located in far East County, or far West County,” Evola agreed.
After discussions at both city’s council meetings this Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will vote on March 12 over whether to place the call center in Richmond or Concord.