Fearing that millions of new dollars may be redirected away from the city’s neighborhood organizations, two council members urged residents Tuesday night to start lobbying City Hall in what may prove to be a contentious funding battle.
Speaking to the annual meeting of the Longfellow Community Council, the city’s most populous neighborhood organization, Council Members Cam Gordon and Andrew Johnson said residents should start attending public meetings, as well as contacting Mayor Betsy Hodges and other elected officials.
At issue is a growing pot of money earmarked for neighborhoods that Hodges has proposed spending in new ways – rather than merely allocating it to the city’s 70 non-profit neighborhood groups.
“We’re hoping that you’ll get involved and interested in helping us through the next few months with the budget decisions,” Gordon said.
City finance officials are projecting that a group of special taxing districts, whose revenues are directed to neighborhoods and Target Center debt, will exceed earlier estimates by about $15 million over the next six years. The districts expire by 2020 under state law.
That new revenue is setting up the first major test of support for neighborhood organizations since the city took more control over their funding in 2011. The groups currently receive about $3.8 million a year, a shadow of their funding in the 1990s.
In her 2015 budget, Hodges has proposed spending next year's share of the new funds to grow the city’s neighborhood department, plan for closure of the city’s port and hire two new communications specialists -- neighborhood groups would see only an inflationary increase.
Gordon said those are worthy causes, but the decision conflicts with some earlier policies and is being made without a complete discussion. “The policy we have, I think, says it should go back to neighborhoods and neighborhood uses,” Gordon told about 100 people gathered in the basement of Minnehaha Academy.
A former president of the Longfellow Community Council board, Johnson said some of his colleagues are skeptical about the value of neighborhood groups. “We’ve seen the political climate really changing in terms of sentiment, feeling around neighborhood associations,” Johnson said.
The pair then reviewed some of the arguments they have heard at City Hall. Some would like to better evaluate neighborhood groups and the city's neighborhood department, for example. Johnson and Gordon agreed.
"But the important piece is that does not need to happen at the expense of neighborhood associations," Johnson said.
They said some at City Hall have also criticized neighborhoods for not representing their communities well enough, or for being dysfunctional.
Gordon said the response should be to improve – rather than de-fund – the organizations. He said the city is reaching out to healthier neighborhoods to help define what expectations should be set across the board.
“When you have an organization in your midst that’s having trouble and it's something you care about like your city, you reach out and you want to support, you want to help, you want to fix that," Gordon said.
A member of the audience asked which council members were opposing the neighborhood associations. Gordon and Johnson declined to name specific people, noting that the entire council is weighing the issue.
“We’re not trying to perpetuate an adversarial relationship with council members and neighborhood associations," Johnson said. "Because that has happened in the past and that is counterproductive. We want people going to the council members saying 'Look at all the value your neighborhood associations are adding' and then being able to actually address some of [their] concerns.”
Gordon’s health, environment and community engagement committee will discuss the issue on Nov. 3 and Nov. 17.