County cuts grants

   The County of San Diego’s Neighborhood Reinvestment Program will see a 50 percent reduction in Fiscal Year 2010-11.

   A 4-1 San Diego County Board of Supervisors vote March 23, with Bill Horn in opposition, directed the county’s chief administrative officer to implement a 50 percent reduction in the community grant program, from $10 million to $5 million, effective July 1, and to redirect the rest to priorities consistent with the supervisors’ strategic initiatives. The funding will be part of the overall 2010-11 budget, which will be discussed by the county supervisors in June.

   “This to me is more about being fiscally responsible in very tough economic times,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

   Each county supervisor has a discretionary Neighborhood Reinvestment Program budget, which will be cut from $2 million per district to $1 million per district. The program, previously called the Community Projects Program, was renamed in September 2009. It was initiated during Fiscal Year 1998-99 with a total budget of $5 million, which was expanded to $10 million annually the next year. 

   “During healthier times we had the ability to increase that,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.

   The program is intended to provide grants to non-profit organizations for public purposes at the regional and community levels. In addition to non-profit organizations, county supervisors have also funded schools and fire departments, and some supervisors have also used the money to supplement other county funding for specific county projects such as parks, roads, and libraries.

   While each county supervisor recommends the allocation of his or her allotted money, the allocations must be approved by a majority of the board.

   “It’s a very, very important program,” Jacob said.  “This is a very difficult decision for me.”

   The program is funded by balances in the previous year’s general fund. A decline in the county’s general fund balance was likely to affect the program. 

   “It’s been one-time money that’s been spent on one-time expenditures,” Jacob said.

   “What we are recommending here today I think is a balanced programmatic approach,” said Cox. “We can’t exempt this program from the cuts being suffered everywhere else.”

   Over the years Jacob’s budgets have provided District 2 with nearly $14 million for recreational facilities. Horn has provided the District 5 with more than $4 million for libraries, more than $3.5 million for parks and recreation and more than $2 million for public safety. 

   “We’re getting money down to the local level,” Horn said.

Horn noted that the county receives more than $20 million of sales tax revenue paid by residents of unincorporated towns. 

   “I think it’s only fair to return that money to their communities,” he said.

Supervisor Ron Roberts noted that many awards are given to projects ineligible for Community Development Block Grant funding. 

   “These are priority items that we want to get done,” he said.

Each county supervisor also has a Community Enhancement Program budget funded by the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) collected from lodging facilities in the unincorporated portion of the county, but that money must be given to organizations that promote tourism or economic development.

   An overwhelming majority of the 126 requests by members of the public to speak on the issue opposed the cuts. 

   “I’m impressed with the number of people who came down,” Jacob said. “This is really the first time we have heard about the depth and extent of this program throughout the region.”

   Lani Lutar, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, was one of the speakers in favor of the cuts. 

   “This is a step in the right direction,” she said. “The state of the economy has impacted your core public services.”

Most of the speakers opposed to the cuts represented organizations in Horn’s district. 

   “We cut our own budget and our own services 27 percent last season,” said Brenda Montiel, Fallbrook Music Society president. “To cut our neighborhood reinvestment funds would be another blow.”

   “I don’t think of libraries as an extra or a luxury,” said Marlo Miller, Friends of the Fallbrook Library president .

   Miller noted that the new Fallbrook branch library is expected to open by early next year. “A beautiful building with no programs and fewer books is not what we want,” she said.

   Christmas Circle Community Park in Borrego Springs is maintained by community members, not by the county. The annual cost to maintain that park is approximately $60,000, and some of that funding has been through Horn’s neighborhood reinvestment budgets. 

   “The competition for these funds is not going to reduce,” said Borrego Springs resident Jim Wilson.

   The community grants constitute about 0.2 percent of the county’s approximate $5 billion budget. 

   “If I had my druthers, we wouldn’t be cutting anything, we would be adding to it,” Cox said. “We all have to make sacrifices.We have other programs that we’re going to have to cut.”

   This year, TOT revenue is expected to decline from $3.2 million to $2.5 million due to lower usage of local hotels, motels, and recreational vehicle parks. 

   “That’s another program that’s going to take a hit,” Cox said. “We’re going to have to make some more tough decisions.”

   Property and sales tax revenues are expected to give the county $16.5 million less than it had for the 2009-10 budget.

   “It helps to make up a little bit of the difference,” Jacob said of the community grant cuts. “The cuts in other programs don’t have to be so severe.”

   Horn noted that non-profit organizations can often achieve county objectives with less bureaucracy than county programs.

   “Some of these are very essential services,” he said. “I think we have made very good use of the money.”

   Roberts noted that non-profit programs have an advantage over county programs. “You leverage those dollars,” he said.

   Roberts noted the county’s economic situation in his decision to vote for the cuts. “Business as usual isn’t going to work,” he said. “We have to lead by example.”

   Supervisor Pam Slater-Price noted that projects awarded community grants have gone through the county’s verification process. 

   “Not only do the moneys provide a match, they also provide an imprimatur of legitimacy,” she said. “That actually saves a lot of work on the part of other donors.”

Slater-Price promised to ensure that the money cut from the program would be used for a suitable purpose. “I’m going to look very hard at any potential use of the additional $5 million,” she said.

   “The budget process is the best time to make those decisions,” said Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard. “By taking this action, you’re effectively freeing up $5 million in one-time money.”

   
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