Chautauqua County’s decision to cancel its contract with Strong Starts Chautauqua was made by County Executive PJ Wendel, who continues to remain silent on the reasons.
The county legislature’s Democratic Minority Caucus sent a letter to the county’s American Rescue Plan Act committee on Nov. 13 to review the history of the contract with Healthy Community Alliance, the fiscal sponsor of Strong Starts Chautauqua, and determine whether the termination process was fair, procedurally appropriate and transparent.
There was no discussion of Strong Starts Chautauqua during Wednesday night’s legislative meeting.
After the meeting, Legislature Speaker Pierre Chagnon, R-Ellery, emphasized that the decision to terminate the contract was made by Wendel.
“The ARPA Advisory Committee is monitoring ARPA’s plans and the county manager has informed us that he has canceled it. We do not have the power to cancel contracts. … The executive branch has the power to negotiate contracts, to implement contracts, to manage, to negotiate, to terminate, all of that. We don’t have any of that authority,” he said.
Other than this clarification, Chagnon did not make any additional comments regarding the Democratic Minority Caucus’ letter to the ARPA committee.
Subsequently, Wendel released her own statement regarding Strong Starts Chautauqua and Healthy Community Alliance. “The decision to cancel Chautauqua County’s contract with Healthy Community Alliance was not made lightly. I would like to thank the HCA Trustee and Board of Directors for their commitment as a fiscal sponsor of Strong Starts Chautauqua. While we look forward to future partnership opportunities with HCA, we found it necessary to cancel our contract due to an internal concern regarding appropriate policy and procedures, which are currently being reviewed by an external advisor. Chautauqua County is unable to comment further at this time as the investigation continues,” he said.
Strong Starts Chautauqua is an outside agency whose goal was to implement universal screenings for children under 5 in the county, with HCA as administrator.
In 2021, the legislature agreed to spend $378,000 on the program. The money came from the county’s ARPA funds, provided by the federal government to help municipalities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wendel terminated the contract earlier this month.
He and Chagnon said previously that they were still committed to implementing universal screenings and that the remaining money from the canceled contract was still earmarked for that.
Earlier this month, the Legislature’s Administrative Services Committee met in executive session to discuss good starts. On that committee is Legislator Susan Parker, D-Fredonia, who continues to search for answers. “We followed the appropriate channels by writing to the ARPA Advisory Group on October 24, 2023 to ask them whether termination of the HCA contract was appropriate. I was told the advisory group met on October 25 to discuss the matter. To date, no response has been received from the advisory group. I also posed questions to the Administrative Services Committee on November 6. The committee has gone into executive session and I can say that our questions remain unanswered,” she said.