As NRP dwindles, neighborhood staff get pink slips

Neighborhood groups — once run solely by volunteers — may be again

Neighborhood organizations — built and sustained over the past decade with the help of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) — are cutting paid staff as NRP money peters out.

Some neighborhood groups, such as the Whittier Alliance and Stevens Square Community Organizations (SSCO), are already laying off paid staff as policy makers try to cobble together a funding plan for NRP Phase II.

Bob Miller, executive director of NRP, estimated that neighborhood groups on average get 70 percent to 85 percent of their budget from NRP.

"There are neighborhoods that have already started to lay off some people. It is not just one or two," he said.

Some neighborhoods are also shifting money from programs to keep staff employed longer.

The city began NRP in the early 1990s, with a goal of spending $20 million a year for 20 years. The program earmarks money for neighborhoods based on their size and need, allowing residents and property owners to set their own priorities and upgrade schools, parks, safety, housing, or meet other needs.

State law changes reduced property taxes dedicated to the program. Policymakers had discussed dropping NRP funding to $11 million per year for more years. That was before proposed multi-million-dollar cuts in state aid to cities. Whatever emerges will be less than neighborhoods had expected.

"The program as we know it can’t continue," said David Fey, deputy mayor and an alternate to the NRP Policy Board. "We need to think of structurally changing how we provide staff support at the neighborhood level. It will not be possible to sustain the number of neighborhood organizations through NRP."

Options

One option is an area model, with a staff serving multiple neighborhoods, Fey said. Miller said that model has drawbacks. "The farther you get from the grassroots, the more likely it is people won’t participate," he said.

Fey said another option is opening City Hall’s decision-making process so citizens can participate more easily — "so they don’t have to rely so much on neighborhood organizations."

City Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward), an alternate on the NRP Policy Board, said he has asked the city to project future potential funding for NRP Phase II. That analysis is expected for future neighborhood meetings on the program’s future. The NRP Policy Board is expected to make a Phase II recommendation in July.

NRP Policy Board member Mark Stenglein said funding would be drastically reduced.

"The clock is ticking," he said. "I don’t see where the money is going to come from." Some neighborhood groups "are going to go by the wayside, unless they want to do it on a volunteer basis," he said.

From programs to staff

A number of neighborhoods used NRP money to hire multiple staff, particularly the poorer neighborhoods that received larger NRP awards. They use staff to organize clean sweeps, community gardens, garage sales and art fairs, help residents understand and respond to development proposals, staff task forces and administer various housing and commercial loan programs.

Neighborhoods use staff differently. Some put a premium on safety, others on housing and development issues.

The Alliance and SSCO were among the first neighborhoods to start NRP Phase I, so they are among the first to run out of money. (Whittier received $8.6 million and SSCO $2.9 million, according to the NRP Web site.)

The Alliance has a plan to lay off two of four staff members. SSCO just restructured, eliminating a three-quarters-time arts and greening coordinator, bringing the staff to 2.5 employees.

Both the Alliance and SSCO are trying to move money within their NRP budgets to meet payroll and keep office doors open.

Miller said he is concerned neighborhoods are shifting money from programs to staff.

"They are trying to tread water," he said.

SSCO is holding its annual meeting Thursday, June 19, and will vote on a $301,000 change to its NRP plan. It would pay for operating costs for the next two years by taking $150,000 from a commercial loan program, $75,000 set aside to add neighborhood parking, $50,000 from a contingency fund and $26,000 from a fund to beautify the Nicollet Avenue bridge across I-94 when it gets rebuilt.

SSCO has had an annual operating budget of $227,000, said Director Julie Filapek. With current finances, it could meet its obligations at least through August, but the money situation "is fairly urgent," she said.

"We want to tighten our belts but assure financial stability," said SSCO Chair Gene Blackledge.

The Whittier Alliance has an annual budget of $264,000, said Executive Director Jeff Langaard. He and key board members have developed a downsizing plan, which they will present at the Thursday, May 29 board meeting.

He declined to discuss specifics until the full board heard the plan.

"The bottom line is that we don’t have enough money to support four staff," he said. "Some responsibilities will go to committees. Some will go to board members. Some will not get done."

At its April meeting, the board added $53,500 to staff and general operations. It shifted $25,000 from a program to convert vacant apartments into larger, family-sized units. It reallocated $28,500 in unspent funds from youth and outreach activities.

The Alliance also plans to hold a community-wide vote in July to approve other NRP plan changes, shifting $85,200 to pay for staff and general operations. Coupled with the downsizing, Langaard said the changes would make the Alliance solvent through June 2004.

The proposed changes would shift money from six different NRP programs, including $34,000 from a rental rehabilitation program. If the neighborhood votes it down, the Alliance would likely run out of money in October, Langaard said.

The Lyndale neighborhood is also eying its future staffing. It budgeted for three full-time staff, but because of turnover it only has 1.5 staff now, said Cara Letofsky, the interim executive director. It does not plan to fill those positions right away.

"It’s a big question — what is the role of neighborhoods in the post-NRP world?" she said. "The future is less. We have to figure out how to make more with less."

Letofsky said the neighborhood just got a notice from the Department of Public Safety that it might not get the last of a state grant it had already been promised to help fund block clubs and safety initiatives.

It is a potential loss of $25,000, she said.

"This stuff is coming from all over," she said.