Weber Commission divided over consultant, intergenerational poverty contract

Monday , June 05, 2017 - 12:00 AM1 comment

CATHY MCKITRICK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Weber County is testing out a new systems approach to tackle intergenerational poverty, but one of its three elected commissioners wonders whether certain consulting contracts are money well spent.

As Weber County Commission Chairman James Ebert sees it, newcomer Michael Lindenmayer brings the innovation, drive and human connections needed to take Weber County to new heights in terms of community and economic development — growth that could provide key opportunities to lift children up and out of poverty through education, inspiration and workforce development.

“Change creates friction at times,” Ebert said. “But we believe very strongly that in order for us to position the county to experience some type of prosperity, we’ve got to leapfrog a couple of counties. We’re not going to do that if it’s business as usual.”

Commissioner Kerry Gibson has his doubts about Lindenmayer, in large part because his contracts with the county lack concrete benchmarks by which to measure output and success. 

Last December, Gibson was the lone no-vote on Lindenmayer’s second consulting contract with the County — for $7,500 per month over six months, with the option to renew in June for six more months. That renewal would bring the total contract cost to $90,000 for the year.

“We hired Lindenmayer nine months ago. I’ve been asking for months for some kind of measurable... to see what that has brought to the table. And I haven’t seen any,” Gibson said during the Dec. 13, 2016 Commission meeting. “When we’re starting new programs, we have to be able to show there’s a benefit to our taxpayers.”

CONTRACTS

Lindenmayer’s initial consulting contract — $5,000 per month for six months — was approved on March 8, 2016 under the auspices of economic development.

The document does not list deadlines or any reports or benchmarks for Lindenmayer to produce. The scope of services says he will “activate relationships and partnerships,” “identify and help coordinate resource mobilization” and “project management.”

A four-stage approach to improve economic development says the first step is to create a vision and plan through an ”investigation process to develop a profile of the Weber County partnership needs and translate it into tactical plans.” The next three stages are to analyze the plan, implement it and “to mobilize talent, programs and financial resources.”

The four stages also do not list a requirement of deadlines or benchmark reports.

Last November, Commissioners approved extending that contract through Dec. 31, 2016, but changed all references of “economic development” to “intergenerational poverty.” The wording for the four-stage approach was left exactly the same. 

In a rare 2-1 vote in December, Commissioners approved Lindenmayer’s second contract to begin in  2017. Former Commissioner Matthew Bell sided with Commissioner James Ebert in favor of the contract, while Commissioner Gibson voted against it. 

Lindenmayer contracted with the County through Linden & Linden, the consulting company he and his wife formed after moving to Utah. A search of Utah’s registered businesses does not show any active or expired business by that name. Lindenmayer is not listed as a registered business agent in the state.

INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY & LINDENMAYER

Intergenerational poverty differs from situational poverty in that the latter results from a temporary setback such as divorce, job loss or medical emergency. In those cases, individuals need some short-term assistance to get back on their feet. 

The Utah Department of Workforce Services defines intergenerational poverty as when “two or more successive generations of a family continue in the cycle of poverty, as measured through utilization of public assistance for at least 12 months as an adult and at least 12 months as a child.”

According to Ebert, in early 2016 he and others launched the process of visioning and identifying areas in the county they wanted to strengthen.

“We had meetings with different individuals and Lindenmayer was one of them,” Ebert said. “We started talking about mechanisms to use for intergenerational poverty, and that put us in uncharted waters.”

Lindenmayer’s background in finance and social impact investing spurred the county to draw up a contract with him, Ebert said.

“We spent a little bit of time looking elsewhere, but no one in this area surfaced. We felt the dollar amount was very doable for the amount of investment dollars we’re hoping to attract,” Ebert said.

Lindenmayer began his career in finance with Morgan Stanley, both in New York and London, and later co-authored two books: “Charity & Philanthropy for Dummies” and “Art’s Principles: 50 years of hard-learned lessons in building a world-class professional services firm.”

He also co-founded Toilet Hackers — a social enterprise focused on securing sanitation for the 2.6 billion people worldwide living without a toilet and other basic necessities. In 2014, he became part of the Toilet Board Coalition with partners that included Unilever and Kimberly-Clark. Its aim is to bring a business perspective and new solutions to the global sanitation crisis — and to achieve worldwide access to sanitation by 2030.

Lindenmayer, 45, describes himself as an “accidental tourist” to Utah, landing in the Salt Lake Valley two years ago with his wife and toddler after living abroad for several years. Their destination was California, but housing costs in Utah were much more attractive so they first rented a home in Cottonwood Heights and then discovered Ogden.

“Weber County has a lot of potential, but you also have a looming set of real challenges — not minor challenges,” he said.

For one thing, Weber has intergenerational poverty “on a multiplying basis," meaning that dealing with it in a reactive rather than proactive manner results in rising health care, corrections and other societal costs.

And for another, “you win the award for levels of opiate addiction and suicide — and these are not things you want to win,” Lindenmayer said. 

According to DWS data, Weber County is the only Wasatch Front county to reach double digits in terms of the problem — where 10 percent of children experience intergenerational poverty. Some rural counties in Southern Utah fare worse, with San Juan County topping out at 32 percent.

In its 2016 report, Utah’s Welfare Reform Commission determined that one-third of the state’s children (291,753) run the risk of getting stuck in poverty as adults.

GATHERING SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTORS

In simple terms, by investing in what he described as “sunrise” or emergent economies — such as cybersecurity, agricultural drones, and energy-smart construction — the county could reap a future with lower incarceration rates, better health outcomes and improved quality of life for families caught in the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

As Lindenmayer sees it, social impact investing is key to restoring ailing communities to economic and social well-being. And in Utah, he is not alone in that view.

In 2013, James Lee Sorenson gifted $13 million to the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business to create the Sorenson Impact Center. Its mission is to cultivate impact investing expertise in students.

“We focus on addressing really hard-to-solve social problems such as homelessness, chronic unemployment, lack of access to debt, and achievement gaps,” Jeremy Keele, Sorenson Impact president and CEO said.

Not all the details are worked out yet, but the center has agreed to provide a $125,000 challenge grant to entice other community stakeholders to match funds in order to conduct a study that would identify the “whys” behind Weber County’s intergenerational poverty conundrum. 

According to Keele, the Center’s contract with Weber County is still in the works. “The County wants to bring us in. We benefit from an endowment so we’re able to do a lot of our work at a highly subsidized rate, but we do have some fixed costs we have to cover. A philanthropic grant might fund that”

Sorenson Impact works in communities all over the world and Keele praised Weber County for its thorough approach toward intergenerational poverty. While the county is not alone in its economic challenges, Keele believes its innovative approach could attract national interest, funding and notoriety as a “best practice” example in addressing intergenerational poverty.

Assuming the contract works out, the center would provide technical assistance, data systems support and help in marshaling private dollars to fund high quality programs and initiatives in the future. 

Given his philanthropic and financial background, Lindenmayer’s primary function is to shepherd the funding efforts and communicate the county’s ambitious vision, according to Ebert and Keele.  

“Michael is basically the spark plug up there,”  Keele said, noting that he’s also a senior fellow with the Center where he collaborates on projects that include sanitation.  “His real skill is pulling people together to rally around a vision or concept. That’s hard work.”

Ebert views Lindenmayer’s work as vital to raising the private dollars needed to fund the Sorenson study, which in turn could spur social impact investment in Weber County and take that burden off the taxpayer.

Ebert’s hope is that within about a year, the initial phase of the Sorenson study could be ready to couple with the county’s Intergenerational Poverty plan, and would reveal gaps that need to be addressed.

“We need to have the private sector help resolve these issues,” Ebert said. 

WORTH ANOTHER $45,000?

In the next few weeks, County Commissioners must decide whether to renew Lindenmayer’s contract for another six months. Right now that vote could go either way. 

Commissioner Jim Harvey took office in January, replacing Bell. Reached Wednesday for comment, Harvey said he needs more information before making that decision.

“I’m doing all I can to be fiscally responsible with taxpayer funds, and am doing additional research to make a better educated decision on that contract,” Harvey said.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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