Some things never change.
At the work session on Tuesday, Oct. 2, the Greensboro City Council dozed through some reports and then discussed the Community Partners Board (CPB) – which funds nonprofits – until City Manager David Parrish made them stop.
It was fortunate that Parrish stepped in because the discussion was not reaching any conclusion and could still be going on.
The CPB is the committee that the City Council set up to give it some political cover for the chosen few nonprofits that it decides to fund each year.
Last year the CPB had $900,000 that it distributed among a number of nonprofits. Some councilmembers didn’t like that some of their personal favorites had been left out or had not received as much money as requested. When the council was through with the CPB budget, it had ballooned to $1.3 million, which is not bad considering how much it could have been.
The city does have a problem; it has more money than it knows what to do with. So when a nonprofit comes with its hand out, it’s hard to turn it down.
This is also the one part of the budget that the City Council for the past 25 years has discussed more than every other part of the budget combined. It’s a $543 million budget, but this $1.3 million is what the City Council discussed in detail.
During the budget process, to quell the discussion, Parrish suggested that the CPB be asked to come back with recommendations, and on Tuesday they received that report.
One recommendation was that nonprofits could only be funded for three consecutive years and then had to take a two-year hiatus before being eligible to apply for funding again.
This has been tried many times in the past and has always failed because these are purely political decisions. The way to assure funding through this process is to have a good friend or supporter on the City Council.
It’s the way it has always been and the reason the City Council added $400,000 to this year’s allocation. It’s not graft, but it’s definitely favoritism.
City Councilmember Justin Outling asked, “What is the purpose? I’m just curious. What are we actually trying to achieve through this process?”
Parrish answered that the city was under no obligation to do this kind of funding at all, but that it generally was used to support some of the priorities or goals of the city.
Outling noted that the organizations that are funded are “essentially favorite organizations.” He added that they were the organizations that knew how to work the system, not necessarily the most deserving.
Councilmember Yvonne Johnson was on a separate quest. Several times she expressed frustration that one time a previous city manager had not funded any of the organizations recommended by the CPB. She said, “The manager can override everything and I don’t think that’s fair.”
It wouldn’t be fair, but the manager can’t override anything. As was pointed out to Johnson, the City Council, not the city manager, makes the decision. It’s the City Council that passes the budget. The city manager simply makes a recommendation. But Johnson kept coming back to her issue about the manager taking funding away from nonprofits.
Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann said, “The Community Partners Board has never fulfilled the job for which it was created …” But at that point Hoffmann was cut off because Councilmember Sharon Hightower wanted to speak.
When Hightower was through, Hoffmann was given the opportunity to finish her statement and she said that the idea behind the CPB was to give the whole process more transparency, and she said, “Quite frankly, I don’t think it has made any difference.”
She said that the funding still depended on individual advocacy and said, “I have questions at this point of the real need for it.”
Outling said that during the budget discussions if a councilmember suggested giving $20,000 or $50,000 to a particular nonprofit it wasn’t worth it to get in a battle with someone you have to work with all year over what was essentially a rounding error in a $543 million budget. He said agencies get funded, not on merit but because the council doesn’t want to fight about it.
Outling said, “We’re spending money in a way that is not in fact strategic.”
The City Council will no doubt discuss this in the future for as long as they are allowed, but it is extremely unlikely that this City Council is going to eliminate the nonprofit funding.
The City Council heard a report from the Community Sustainability Council (CSC) to become a “STAR Community.” This is another feel good effort where, if the city is determined to be sustainable, it can get awarded up to five stars.
It was unclear if the stars would be gold and pasted on the foreheads of the city councilmembers, but some were so excited about the idea of achieving four or five stars that they couldn’t sit still.
The best part of this presentation was when Vicki Foust, the vice chair of the CSC, told the City Council, “It’s going to be free.”
She was quickly corrected by Outling and city staff.
The program doesn’t do anything but requires the city to compile a massive amount of data in the manner that STAR Communities demands that it be compiled in order to compare it to other cities and determine how many stars Greensboro will be awarded.
Compiling massive amounts of data isn’t free because the people who work for the city are not volunteers. In fact, Planning Director Sue Schwartz was brave enough to put a damper on the excitement of councilmembers with stars dancing before their eyes and say that with the Comprehensive Plan revamp in process, she wasn’t sure they had staff time to start a new project.
Parrish said he would hesitate to add staff for the STAR Communities program.
At least some in the room were keeping their heads and hadn’t been swayed by the promise of perhaps as many as five stars.
If Schwartz had said, “No problem,” it would indicate that her department was wildly overstaffed.
In the end, because it seemed that a majority of the City Council was completely taken by the idea of stars, Parrish will probably be forced to find staff time to compile the data.
Raleigh has five full-time employees working on sustainability. Winston-Salem has two and Durham has four. Plus the people on the sustainability staff work with staff in every department to get the data, which means it takes staff time away from every department.
Sustainability is a popular buzzword these days and it appears to mean “something good.” So if you win four or five stars it means that STAR Communities approves of your city government. The question the City Council should have been asking is, how much are those stars worth.