Wendel remains quiet on Strong Starts contract cancellation

The decision for Chautauqua County to cancel its contract with Strong Starts Chautauqua was made by County Executive PJ Wendel, who continues to remain quiet on the reasons.

On Nov. 13, the Democratic Minority Caucus of the county legislature sent a letter to the county’s American Rescue Plan Act Committee review the history of the contract with Healthy Community Alliance, the fiscal sponsor of Strong Starts Chautauqua, and determine whether the process for terminating it was fair, procedurally appropriate, and transparent.

There was no discussion of Strong Starts Chautauqua at Wednesday night’s legislature meeting.

After the meeting, Legislature Chairman Pierre Chagnon, R-Ellery, noted that the decision to terminate the contract was made by Wendel. “The ARPA Advisory Committee followed up on ARPA projects, and the county executive informed us that he had canceled it. We have no power to cancel contracts. … The executive branch has the power to negotiate contracts, implement contracts, manage, negotiate, terminate, all of that. We have none of that authority,” he said.

Outside of making that clarification, Chagnon did not comment further regarding the Democratic Minority Caucus’ letter to the ARPA Committee.

Afterward, Wendel issued his 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 HCA’s administrator, and Board of Directors, for their commitment as Strong Starts Chautauqua’s fiscal sponsor. While we look forward to future opportunities for partnerships with HCA, we deemed it necessary to cancel our contract due to an internal concern over proper policy and procedures, which is being reviewed by external counsel. 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 birth to 5 years old in the county, with HCA serving as the administrator.

In 2021, the legislature agreed to spend $378,000 for the program. The money came from the county’s ARPA funds, which was provided by the federal government to help municipalities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wendel terminated the contract earlier this month.

Both he and Chagnon said previously they are still committed to implement universal screenings and the money left over from the canceled contract is still earmarked for that.

Earlier this month, the legislature’s Administrative Services Committee met in executive session to discuss Strong Starts. On that committee is Legislator Susan Parker, D-Fredonia, who continues to seek answers. “We went through the proper channels by writing to the ARPA Advisory Group on October 24, 2023 asking them whether terminating the HCA contract was appropriate. I was told that the advisory group met on October 25th to discuss the topic. As of today, there has been no reply from the advisory group. I also asked questions at the Administrative Services Committee on November 6. The committee went into executive session, and I can say that our questions remain unanswered,” she said.


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