Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Sept. 14 to terminate a nearly $11 million contract with Elevate Strategies, a firm that was scheduled to conduct community outreach encouraging county residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The contract cancelation will be effective Sept. 24.
Commissioners agreed in a 4-1 vote in early June to have county officials finalize the proposed contract, although Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who voted against it, and Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey expressed concerns about the estimated cost of the project at the time. The contract was ultimately approved and started in late July.
Ramsey and Cagle, the two Republican commissioners, have also said they were hesitant to agree to work with Elevate Strategies specifically as its founder Felicity Pereyra has worked on Democratic campaigns including Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run and the mayoral campaign of Adrian Garcia, who is now Precinct 2 commissioner. They suggested the data collected could later be used to benefit Democratic candidates despite Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo's assurances the firm was not selected for political reasons.
At the Sept. 14 meeting, Ramsey shared additional concerns that he said have come up since the contract has been in place, including the “amount of the contract was not known,” and other details of the process were not communicated to him.
Hidalgo said no part of this contract approval process differed from the court’s standard protocol.
“I did go back and look at the transcript, and I'd encourage you guys to review it,” Hidalgo said at the Sept. 14 meeting. “There's a quote: ‘The scope and the order and the magnitude of the dollars I looked at’—referring to the contract that was brought up—that's coming out of your mouth, Commissioner Ramsey, so you discussed the magnitude of the contract as well as the identity of the firm.”
Harris County Purchasing Agent DeWight Dopslauf confirmed Sept. 14 the Elevate Strategies contract was handled the same as all other contracts commissioners approve or reject.
The contract would have entailed a full year of targeted community vaccine outreach, engaging county residents via calls, texts, social media, face-to-face canvassing and direct mail, focusing on the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19.
The county had previously partnered with Elevate Strategies to help raise awareness about the 2020 Census, Hidalgo said June 8. She also said she anticipated these funds would be reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the county would have paid Elevate Strategies in installments over the course of the project in the meantime.
As of Sept. 14, about 62% of Harris County residents ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated compared to 59% of Texas residents, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Hidalgo said she believes the terminated contract would have helped bring that number up in Harris County.
“There’s absolutely nothing done here that was in any way deviating from the most adequate protocols, and what is sad ... [is] that the COVID response is being politicized,” Hidalgo said.