Program funding future uncertain

by Vadim Lavrusik

City of Minneapolis officials held meetings this week to hear feedback on a report that might change the way neighborhood organizations function – threatening their existence.

The Community Engagement Report, a city-conducted report that offers recommendations on how to better involve citizens in local government, was released in November.

The report created controversy among neighborhood officials and residents because of its implications for the future of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

The program, which the city began in 1990, provides funding for neighborhood groups and their projects. The program’s funding has been reduced over the years due to a decrease in property tax revenue that funds the program. The funding expires in 2009, which might cause some neighborhood groups to disintegrate or become volunteer driven.

Because the report barely mentions NRP, residents and neighborhood officials have taken that as sign that the city is not going to continue or recreate a similar model of NRP after funds expire, said Barb Lickness, NRP neighborhood specialist.

The report said NRP hasn’t encouraged community engagement on a citywide level.

“It has created a lot of small towns in a big city,” Lickness said. “Before NRP, most people didn’t know what neighborhood they lived in.”

NRP Director Bob Miller said more than 300 people showed up to public meetings, which shows people care about participating in their local governments.

Miller said if the city wanted to keep NRP, it would find room in its budget.

He said the City Council wants to control the money.

“It is about power and control and where the control rests,” he said.

Debbie Evans, at-large neighborhood representative for the NRP Policy Board, said NRP was never designed to engage citizens in citywide efforts, but about improving neighborhood participation.

“Rather than the city being embarrassed by its success, why not take something that is working well and make improvements,” she said.

She said the city hasn’t addressed the concern of NRP because the program doesn’t allow them to control the money.

“The city has not said, ‘OK, let’s tackle this problem, let’s see how we can get funding for NRP.’ Instead it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s too bad it’s going away,'” she said.

Ward Two City Councilman Cam Gordon, said it is time to address the issue of NRP.

He said the City Council doesn’t have a unanimous position on NRP, but after hearing public opinion on the Community Engagement Report, the council will discuss NRP and its future.

The City Council, he said, doesn’t have total control of NRP’s future, and the state Legislature could make the final decision.

If neighborhood groups lose NRP funding, many could return to being volunteer-based.

James De Sota, neighborhood coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said because the association’s funding ends soon, his job and the association’s office may be gone in a year.

“A lot of people think the city would like to have more control, and having empowered neighborhoods is kind of threatening to them,” he said.

He said NRP has funded the association staff, business and home improvement grants, additional lighting on 15th Avenue and other projects.

Jeremiah Peterson, student representative for SECIA, said although student support for SECIA is low, it is important students contribute to the association.

“Students don’t really do anything for the neighborhood as it is,” Peterson said.

He said SECIA has represented students well, and the association will seek funding through grants to keep its staff.

Other neighborhood groups may not feel as harsh an impact.

Florence Littman, vice president of the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association, said the association won’t disintegrate if it loses NRP funding.

But it will make it harder to fund community projects, she said.

“Once you have some money, you have some credibility, and people are more willing to support a certain project,” she said.

NRP’s Evans said neighborhoods have leveraged over $500 million in additional funding because of NRP funding.

Public meetings end Monday and the deadline for community surveys is next Thursday. The report will then go to the City Council.