HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- The company in charge of outreach and application intake for Harris County's Hurricane Harvey recovery program was fired on Friday.
Virginia-based ICF International was notified in a termination letter on Dec. 6 that it would no longer be needed for "disaster recovery program operations, support, intake and outreach services" for Harris County's Project Recovery program.
The letter doesn't mention performance issues, instead citing a "convenience" clause in ICF's contract. ICF, which is a public company that is not a governmental agency, was hired by the county in February.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county "did not see the sense of urgency or the results we needed to see by any means."
"The programs they were working on were incredibly important recovery programs for folks who suffered during Hurricane Harvey who are waiting for support. Incredibly heartbreaking stories, and we couldn't afford to have a vendor that wasn't delivering," Hidalgo said.
However, in a statement to 13 Investigates, ICF said it stands by its work. The company disagrees with how broadly the county characterizes its role within the program, saying that ICF is responsible for less than a third of the "multistep, complex process."
"We understand that there are elements of the program - mostly outside of our limited scope - that could help things move faster for county residents. We worked diligently with the County to recommend those elements, but ultimately the County opted to move in their own direction instead," the company said in its statement. Read ICF's full statement at the end of the story.
The firing comes after 13 Investigates reported two weeks ago that not a single homeowner had received aid from the county's $800 million program for Harvey storm victims.
"I wasted hundreds (of dollars) in gas money alone gathering and delivering documents to them," said Drew Gadd, who applied for aid earlier this year. "I feel let down really. ... People like me will lose everything."
Gadd is among more than 5,700 homeowners who have either filled out pre-application surveys or have been invited to apply to the county's program.
On Nov. 21, 13 Investigates reported that zero reimbursement checks were issued, zero homeowners had been helped by a buyout program and zero hammers were swinging to rebuild storm victims' homes. Yet, at that point, the county had already paid ICF $1.3 million.
Since our investigation aired, three homeowners have received reimbursement checks through the county's program, including a North Shore resident in Northeast Harris County who received a $44,752 check. Another Northeast Harris County resident received a $21,992 check and a Spring resident received a $27,801 in reimbursements. No buyouts or repairs have started.
Changes to the program
The county recently hired nonprofit Baker Ripley as a second intake vendor, was brought on to help increase the volume of applications amid ICF's lack of progress.
Last month, Daphne Lemelle, community development director at the Harris County Community Services Department, said ICF had only turned over 500 applications, all of which were incomplete.
"If we believe that their performance is not up to par, which is something we continue to review every month, every day, every week, we will let them know where they stand and that's why we had to bring on another intake vendor," Lemelle told 13 investigates last month.
There's currently 10 intake centers, including five that are operated by Baker Ripley and five that were operated by ICF.
The termination is effective Jan. 6, 2020, giving the company time to "ensure a smooth and timely transition of operations."
As part of the termination letter, the county says it will retain all of the intake centers operated by ICF, in addition to retaining other services vital to the continuation of the program. That includes keeping outreach strategists on board as well as transitioning call center services.
Harris County's program is separate from the Harvey recovery aid program operated by the City of Houston. However, the city also has an active contract with ICF for outreach and intake.
In Houston, the city's latest pipeline report from November 29 shows 84 individuals have received aid from the city's Homeowner Assistance Program.
In the accompanying video we refer to ICF as a private company, meaning they are not a governmental agency. ICF is a publicly traded company.
ICF International's full statement below:
"We stand by our work in Harris County. Our priority is, and has always been, to help Harris County residents get back on their feet and on the path to recovery. When ICF partners with communities following a disaster, we are completely focused on ensuring recovery work is done in a way that makes the community more resilient to the next natural disaster.
It is important to note that ICF is directly responsible for outreach, intake and the initial application submission process, which accounts for less than a third of what is a multistep, complex process. What happens after we submit applications is managed by the County and its other subcontractors.
We have provided help to over 17,229 potential applicants, initiated intake for 8,476 households and submitted over 800 full applications. In each of these areas, we delivered. Each metric is ahead or on par with expectations, and metrics were accelerating rapidly.
We understand that there are elements of the program - mostly outside of our limited scope - that could help things move faster for county residents. We worked diligently with the County to recommend those elements, but ultimately the County opted to move in their own direction instead.
We will fully support the County during this transition and take whatever steps we can to ensure the best outcomes for residents."
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