Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Communities' NSP experiences under City direction vary wildly

Now in its second year of administering Neighborhood Support Program (NSP) and Neighborhood Business District Support Funds (NBDSF), Cincinnati's Department of Community Development (DCD) is still experiencing hiccups.

DCD took control of the programs following the controversial ouster of several members of the board of Invest in Neighborhoods.

On February 22, councilmembers Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz, Leslie Ghiz, Chris Monzel and Charlie Winburn proposed a motion placing several conditions on any future contracts between the City and the non-profit.

Among the conditions for receiving a two-year contract, which the City could terminate at any time, Invest in Neighborhoods would be required to:

  • Provide a full-time staff person and prohibit dollars from being spent by board members on part-time staffing;
  • Open all of its meetings to the public;
  • Submit its organizational bylaws to City Council prior to the contract's execution;
  • Prohibit its board members and staff from private consulting or other business relationships with all community councils and neighborhood business districts;
  • Prohibit its board members and staff from any campaign advocacy on behalf of Invest in Neighborhoods, in relation to City Council;
  • Provide copies of any communications with community councils and neighborhood business districts to City Council, the Mayor, and City administration;
  • Provide access for a public audit of all internal financials and communications at the request of City Council; and
  • Provide a monthly report to DCD outlining all daily activities performed, including a time sheet for paid staff.
Invest in Neighborhoods found the terms to be unacceptable, and negotiations have since broken down.

Neighborhood triage

Community councils have had wildly different experiences receiving their NSP and NBDSF funds.

Joe Gorman, community organizer with the Camp Washington Community Board, says that his neighborhood has yet to spend a dime of NSP funding this year, and likely won't be able to until June.

Monthly newsletters, a web site upgrade, mailings to residents, and neighborhood cleanup efforts all remain unfunded.

"This delay NEVER occurred under Invest in Neighborhoods management," Gorman says.

Gorman believes that the main holdup in funding is that the City now has 51 NSP contracts to review, instead of just one.

And he says that Councilmember Jeff Berding bears much of the responsibility for how the situation has been handled.

"City Councilman Berding led the effort to micro-manage NSP by insisting upon 'safeguards' demanded of Invest in Neighborhoods – but not, say, the Empowerment Zone," Gorman says. "Even though numerous community council reps – and [DCD Director] Michael Cervay – repeatedly asked Council not to switch management of NSP from Invest in Neighborhoods to the City, Berding ignored our pleas."

Receiving funding for neighborhood needs was a much easier process under Invest in Neighborhoods, he says.

"Invest in Neighborhoods was a dream compared to the City's management nightmare," Gorman says. "I think Berding wants to triage certain unhealthy neighborhoods to spread City resources to neighborhoods with a pulse."

This concerted effort can be seen by driving through certain neighborhoods and seeing the decay, disinvestment, crime, litter, and abandoned buildings, he says.

"These places are being encouraged to go back to the soil for later development," Gorman says. "Withholding NSP funds, or making City development grants so difficult to manage, supports this effort."

Checks and balances

Jake Williams, president of the Mount Washington Community Council (MWCC), says that his neighborhood has had a vastly different experience.

His only concern with DCD's handling of the NSP is what he calls "the continual last-minute tinkering" over who will administer the program, which he says always seem to occur during critical periods in the NSP process.

"Several councils, including the MWCC, had their budgets approved and contracts drafted only to be held up by sudden, seemingly last minute consideration of Invest in Neighborhoods as this year's program manager well after the NSP budgeting and approval process had begun," Williams says. "Without a final decision from City Council, other departments were unable to finalize the contracts, resulting in the delay."

Still, Williams personally appreciates the City's handling of the NSP and NBDSF programs.

"The Department of Community Development worked with communities that were stuck in this administrative limbo to ensure that any spending that occurred after the date of budget approval would be covered by the City's NSP program – by moral obligation," he says. "They should be complimented for this decision, as it required additional time and paperwork through no fault of their department."

And he believes that this new level of accountability is a welcome addition to the NSP process, preventing frivolous, non-community-related spending.

"One citizen's hoops are another citizen's checks and balances," Williams says. "As a taxpayer, I applaud the new level of accountability for the spending of our money by each Community. As a Community Council president, I firmly believe that if City Council could leave the process to run interrupted for a year, it would operate very well and quickly become the new normal."

Lessons learned?

Earlier this month, Councilmember Laure Quinlivan contacted the City's community councils to update them on an April report that said that negotiations between the City and Invest in Neighborhoods to administer the programs in the future are not going well.

In her communication, she said that she was aware of some neighborhoods' problems with DCD's processing of proposals and vouchers.

Under the current system, DCD is required to process each community council's voucher and submit forms to various other departments for their signature. Only then are community councils reimbursed.

The result is the lag time in funding that Gorman referenced.

"Community Development maintains they learned lessons last year that will prevent these same problems from occurring this year," Quinlivan said.

However, further problems could lead to future Council intervention.

"If things continue badly with in-house administration, I believe some could be persuaded to vote to award the contract to Invest in Neighborhoods to administer your funds," Quinlivan said.

Previous reading on BC:
Six community councils to get NSP funding for break in services (7/2/09)
Proposed ordinance to register community councils raises questions (4/28/09)
$100K, new staffer needed to administer neighborhood support funds (3/4/09)
Invest in Neighborhoods wins NSP contract (12/9/08)
Kamuf: Look into Invest in Neighborhoods turmoil (11/5/08)