ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Millions intended for COVID-19 relief in St. Louis County wound up in the pockets of out of state consultants. Two lucrative contracts tapped the expertise of two separate firms.
The Boston Consulting Group received $1.9 million from St. Louis County CARES fund, while Community Catalyst received just over $500,000. St. Louis County's Director of Transformation defends the contract with the Boston Consulting Group.
"They are experts in strategic management and thinking, how systems and programs can do things better," Andria Nelson Roberts said. Nelson Roberts says the intended goal is to improve customer service for St. Louis County residents and to figure out ways to save county tax dollars moving forward. The expense isn't garnering praise with everyone in the community.
"Meanwhile all these businesses are struggling," said Ben Brown, owner of Satchmo's in Chesterfield. Brown was a vocal critic of the St. Louis County shut down orders that kept his dining room closed. He believes the money should have stayed closer to home, and added, "any amount that could have been directed to businesses struggling would have been huge."
According to a spokesperson for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, local businesses received approximately $22 million worth of CARES relief, with a maximum grant of $15,000 per business. Business owners like Ben Brown say that's only a small fraction of total sales for most restaurants, and additional money would have helped. Brown did not receive any CARES dollars from St. Louis County because he violated the county's shut down order.
St. Louis County Council member Tim Fitch also questions the Boston Consulting Contract.
"I've worked in St. Louis County since 1983, and I saw nothing new in [the report] as eye opening. [Nothing that made me say] 'wow! This is a great idea we had never thought about that before,'" Fitch said. "It's a lot of money. I'm sure the way they looked at it, it's federal money it's not real money."
"We definitely had an opportunity with federal funding to reinvest in how we think about how we provide better government, customer service to residents," Nelson Roberts said.
One of those residents is Lon Zimmerman of Creve Coeur. Zimmerman recently retired from a long career in market research, which included running focus groups. Earlier this year Zimmerman was asked to be a part of a focus group conducted by an out of state consultant on behalf of St. Louis County. In Zimmerman's case the focus group was run by a woman from Boston.
Zimmerman said he was asked "'What were your experiences [with COVID]? What were your concerns?' They were pretty plain, vanilla-type questions. It's not really in-depth which made me wonder what kind of actionable information they are going to turn over to their client."
According to the county, Zimmerman participated in a focus group conducted for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. It was awarded to a company called Community Catalyst at a cost of $512,000.
As a former market researcher, Zimmerman seemed surprised by the number and said, "I think you told me the contract was for a half million. That is a substantial amount. In the 30 years I was in business my firm never had a contract that was... I think the largest thing we had was $75,000 to $80,000 and that was really complex and detailed."
According to a county spokesperson, Community Catalyst surveyed more than 3,100 residents, conducted 34 focus groups and did interviews with leaders of public service organizations. The spokesperson also said the information will be compiled into reports and help determine COVID's impact on historically underserved communities.
The Director of the Department of Public Health, Dr. Faisal Khan, said, "it was worth it if it produces the right results which I'm confident it will. Again, this is something being done across the country because we as a system at the federal, local, and state level were not prepared for an emergency of this magnitude. It overwhelmed us."
As for the more expensive contract with the Boston Consulting Group, Nelson Roberts said they weren't the lowest bid. News 4 has requested a copy of all bids, but is still waiting for the requested information. Nelson Roberts said they were ultimately picked because of their extensive experience working with local governments. She said the consultants identified potential savings of between 15 and 25 million dollars regarding the way the county procures contracts, which could be a savings to the county in years to come.
"We hear that often," Fitch said. "If you give us tax dollars and allow us to spend it we will save you more money than you spent on the consultants report. I've heard that my entire career and I'm yet to see it happen."
When asked if the consultant's report will actually save the county $15 million, Nelson Roberts said, "I think we want to continue the conversation on how those costs savings are being applied for us. How we are improving government service for our residents and making them more efficient. We know there are cost savings and efficiency, time savings embedded in those changes."
When asked if she could guarantee there will be savings as a result of the contract with Boston Consulting Nelson Roberts responded, "yes."