City ponders timeline for using NRP funds

Some neighborhoods welcome guidelines while others worry

Some neighborhood organizations are protesting a city plan that would set a firm deadline for them to spend most of their Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds.

Others think it’s a good idea to hustle slow-moving organizations along in spending funds intended for the benefit neighborhood residents. Either way, establishing a timeframe for neighborhoods to expend NRP dollars is a “big change,” David Rubedor, directed of Neighborhood and Community Relations, said.

Launched in 1991, NRP was a 20-year, $215-million city project that allowed neighborhoods to set their own priorities for community improvements. Although the program has officially ended, the city’s 70 neighborhood organizations are still implementing the plans they’ve developed for the money. A few have yet to even complete neighborhood priority plans for the program’s second and final phase.

Rubedor said NRP was established with “the philosophy that neighborhoods would spend (NRP funds) at their own speed and own level and would move the money out into the community over a period of time.”

But in November, the City Council’s Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee gave the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department staff six months to develop guidelines on how much unspent NRP funding neighborhood organizations could hold onto and for how long. The city accepted comments on a draft version of the guidelines though June 26, and the committee is expected to review a final recommendation at its July 27 meeting.

A public letter from Windom Park Citizens in Action described the draft guidelines released May 6 as “a short-sighted, one-size-fits-all vision for NRP funds still available to neighborhood organizations and a problematic approach to ensuring those funds’ expenditure.”

The draft guidelines would give neighborhoods seven years after approval of an NRP plan to spend at least 85 percent of their funding allocation from the city. At least 95 percent would have to be under contract for specific projects outlined in their NRP plans.

If a neighborhood organization doesn’t reach those benchmarks, the city could claw back unspent or un-contracted funds and split those dollars between the other neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that don’t submit a phase-two plan for approval by Dec. 31, 2016 would essentially forfeit those funds.

The guidelines also allow neighborhood organizations to request a waiver if some factor out their control is delaying a project or if a recent change to an NRP plan drops the neighborhood below the spending threshold.
Currently, 45 of the city’s 70 neighborhood organizations are still working on NRP plans approved seven or more years ago. About 36 neighborhoods are currently below the spending threshold and would be “directly affected” if the guidelines were adopted as-is, Rubedor said.

Controversially, the draft guidelines include in the calculations program income— money that many neighborhood organizations consider theirs.

For neighborhood groups, program income is money generated from an earlier use of NRP funds, through the repayment of a home improvement loan, for instance. Under NRP rules, program income can then be put back to use for its original purpose or reallocated to other neighborhood priorities.

Since 1991, neighborhoods have generated more than $25 million in program income, Rubedor said. But he added that aspect of the plan was one of the most likely to change before the draft guidelines return to the Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee.

Several neighborhood representatives said the city doesn’t always make it easy to contract and eventually spend their NRP funds in a timely manner.

CARAG Executive Coordinator Scott Engel said when the City Council froze about $10 million in NRP funds in 2011 “they kind of sucked a year out of our lives and sucked the energy out of implementation of our plan.”

“It has been a challenge to get people excited about it, although we have lots of projects going on now that are pretty cool,” Engel said, adding that CARAG is unlikely to fall below the threshold outlined in the draft guidelines.

Neither is the East Calhoun Community Organization, but ECCO Coordinator Monica Smith said the all-volunteer neighborhood organizations operating without paid staff were the ones most likely to take a hit if the guidelines are adopted.

“It just takes longer to do the work, and those neighborhood will be possibly adversely impacted, because it takes a long time for volunteers to do the work and there’s a lot required,” Smith said.

In an email, East Isles Residents Association President Andrew Degerstrom said the city was “doing the right thing” to set a timeline for the use of NRP funds.

“City funding of neighborhood organizations is a privilege,” Degerstrom said. “It is up to the neighborhood organizations to spend that money in a timely manner that best advances city and neighborhood goals, and that benefits the community as a whole.”