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Want a hush-hush tip on some big, big money? On Tuesday, at a 10-minute public hearing, the city announced almost $500 million worth of sensitive welfare-to-work job training and placement contracts, with no opportunity for public review and without a single whisper of public comment. Taking into account the three-year renewal clauses in these 17 contracts, the total approaches to a neat $1 billion. (In comparison, the federal government's entire welfare-to-work budget for the first two years of welfare reform totals just $3 billion).

The city welfare agency also threw in a last-minute change that boosted the take of one for-profit company from $12 million to $56.5 million–one of the single biggest human services contracts the city has ever issued, outside of foster care services. As City Limits reported last month, this mammoth company, Maximus, has had significant problems with other social services contracts nationwide.

But although these contracts must be available for inspection before they go to a public hearing, the only documents available last week at the city's Human Resources Administration headquarters were boilerplate that included no specific information about which companies were named, or how much the contracts would be worth.

One thing remains clear: the city has decided to shift the task of finding jobs for welfare recipients and poor people from neighborhood-based providers to huge job development firms, including several for-profits.

“Our whole community-based institutional structure that was the result of successful and time-tested efforts is coming apart to anonymous giants from God only knows where that have questionable records,” said Manhattan City Councilman Bill Perkins, who plans to submit written comment on the Maximus contract next week. “If our community-based groups had as many questions raised [about their records], they'd be blown out of the water, being called poverty pimps and other names.”

Perkins said he was also concerned that the process offered little opportunity for public oversight or input. “Is that good government, to be able to change policy so dramatically, and be able to distribute that amount of money without a serious process of review and negotiations to make sure that community's interests are being represented?”