Everyone knows the answer to the question: When is a door not a door?

When it’s ajar.

However, the question that county officials were dealing with at the Board of Commissioners’ Thursday, July 15 meeting was a different one: When is a call center not a call center?

 The agenda called for the board to approve $1.8 million to hire two companies to run a call center for handling calls regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.  Many people in the meeting room had the same question that night.  The county used to get a great number of calls for vaccination appointments, but now those calls have died down – so, why spend $1.8 million for a call center?

Guilford County Commissioner James Upchurch summed up the question nicely.  Even though he’s serving his first year on the board, it was clear he wasn’t just going to follow staff’s recommendation. 

Upchurch asked County Manager Mike Halford: “$1.8 million is a substantial amount of money, so can you just explain why we need to spend more money, especially since the number of people coming to us for vaccines is dropping pretty much every day?”

Halford and other county staff had a number of different responses.  One was that this won’t be a typical call center that just takes calls, but, instead, a center that conducts outreach to the unvaccinated.  The service provided could also mean the outsourced workers go out into the community and help with the vaccination effort.  

Halford pointed out that there are still up to 200,000 people in Guilford County who aren’t vaccinated and this effort would be directed toward them. 

Halford and Guilford County Health and Human Services Director Heather Skeens both told the board that entering into these two contracts would also allow county staff who are now focused on vaccinations to return to their prior responsibilities. 

The county manager said that people of color were generally more hesitant to get vaccinated and added that having a targeted outreach encouraging people to set up vaccination appointments could help address the disparity issues.

Halford also pointed out that the item was for the contracts not to exceed $1.8 million.  He said the county could end up not needing to spend all of that money.

It was very strange that such a controversial high-dollar item was placed on the board’s Consent Agenda – an agenda that usually contains no-brainer house-keeping-type items such as contracts to buy copier paper and giving final approval to the people who have been certified qualified to handle fireworks in the county. 

Any commissioner can pull an item off of the Consent Agenda for discussion and, in this case, Commissioner Justin Conrad pulled the item, asked a series of probing questions about it and then voted against it.

The motion still passed 6 to 3 with Upchurch, Conrad and Commissioner Alan Perdue voting no. 

After the meeting, Conrad said one argument he certainly doesn’t buy from staff is that, since the motion calls for the county not to exceed $1.8 million, the county may spend less than that if it turns out the service isn’t needed to the extent anticipated.

Conrad said that he’s been in county government long enough to know that “not to exceed $1.8 million,” means “$1.8 million.” 

Many, many items the board approves have the “up to” clause in there and the final expenditure is almost always that amount.  In some cases, prices are even higher and staff must come back to the board with a request for more money for an item.

Conrad said the whole “call center” project presented to the board was “nebulous” and said there didn’t seem to be a clear notion of exactly what the county was getting in return for spending nearly $2 million.