In 2019 and 2018, Creswell Clubhouse, an after-school/summer program for kids directed by Laura Rariden, received a portion of the City of Creswell's budgeted community service funds, distributed through Creswell First! Photo Provided/Jenni Donley
By GINI DAVIS
The City of Creswell has supported local nonprofits for the past three years -- a common practice among area communities in Lane County -- with more than $19,000 budgeted in the 2019-20 fiscal year.
The city has contracted with community foundation Creswell First! to help evaluate applications from nonprofit and other community-service organizations who serve local residents. The money is then distributed based on those evaluations, and other policy guidelines.
The total money appears as a line item – ”Community Contributions” – in the Cultural & Recreation section of the General Fund of the City Budget each fiscal year. For 2018-19, that total was $16,000; for 2019-20, it is $19,000.
For FY2019-20, the amount equals approximately 0.5% of the City's $3,788,657 General Fund. The General Fund accounts for 15.8% of the city's total budget. Another way to look at it: Each Creswell resident pays $3.48 per year to support the city's nonprofit contributions.
While those numbers might seem small, it has recently been a big topic.
Residents have advocated for, and others opposed, the city's payment to ”community contributions.” Is it part of the social contract citizens have with their government, or should only private citizens donate and determine who gets their money?
Both sides were well-articulated on The Chronicle's opinion page in the past weeks.
But what do we know for sure about the practice? The Chronicle spoke to local city and nonprofit leaders, and looked at how other towns handle the situation.
It's not 'charity'
City Administrator Michelle Amberg noted that, from either perspective, viewing ”community service” money as ”charity” is misleading.
”We're not giving in a 'charitable' fashion; we've created a system of transparency for city monies that support the nonprofits that provide services to Creswellians,” Amberg said. ”The process is truly driven by the people serving on the (Creswell First!) board, representing Creswell. We're not in the business of 'charity,' we're assisting organizations providing services to people in our community – and it's much more cost-effective to support these nonprofits than trying to provide these services ourselves.”
Or to rely solely on private donors.
”Many cities buy services from nonprofits that are serving people in need; that's essentially what Creswell First! is doing with the city community service funding,” said Creswell First! President Steve Carmichael. ”Awards are not a 'donation' but are a contract to provide a service for people in need.”
This system is different and better aligned with ”best budgeting practices” than the ”random, arbitrary” one Amberg inherited in 2014: ”When I came here, there were actually line items in the budget for certain agencies (including Community Sharing, South Lane Wheels, Senior Meals, and other non-Creswell-based services), guaranteeing them a certain amount of money each year, with no oversight and no determining how they were serving a need in Creswell or whether they were the best to meet that need,” she said.
Former mayor Dave Stram established a Cultural Committee to develop a methodology for distributing grants. However, ”It was very tedious and difficult, because if the committee didn't fund something, there was pushback against councilors for not making that award, so I could see that was not going to work, having community people upset with the councilors,” Amberg said.
The absence of a designated community fund invited other problems as well: ”Some donations that were made to the city for a specific purpose were just put into the general fund and 'lost,'” she said. And when, for a time, requests were made directly to the city council, ”they tended to just give a little something to everybody.”
Under the Creswell First! model, ”Money is dedicated, and it goes to a fiduciary agent with strict oversight, that reports to the council,” Amberg said. ”It's a very clean, transparent system now – and it's a fair system, because a lot of entities provide services to people in Creswell, and now there's a board overseeing how those requests are evaluated and how awards are made.”
The application process
Nonprofits applying to Creswell First! for city money (the maximum award is $2,500) must meet the following criteria:
n Applicants must be a registered not-for-profit organization (recognized by the State of Oregon), or an organization or individual under the umbrella of an existing nonprofit; programs and services must be accessible and delivered to Creswell residents; the majority of clients to be served by the proposed program or activity supported by the grant must reside within the City of Creswell.
n Applicants not headquartered in Creswell must clearly demonstrate how their programs and resources provide services to Creswell residents.
n Creswell First! screens applications and determines awards in keeping with written policy. Council receives an annual report detailing the projects/programs awarded city community service funding. If the entire budgeted amount has not been awarded, the remainder is held in reserve for unforeseen or emergency needs, Carmichael said.
n Awardees must file final reports on their project and are not eligible for future funding until those reports are submitted.
”I am pleased to live in a city that provides assistance to people in need,” Carmichael said, citing Womenspace as an example of a non-Creswell organization that provides vital services to Creswell residents.
”Battered and abused women suffering from domestic violence receive protection and support from Womenspace when they leave the destructive relationship; in Creswell, due to community service funding, they also receive some financial assistance to pay their rent, care for children, and transportation (bus passes) to jobs and health care,” Carmichael said. ”This is just one example of how we all are contributing to an improved, productive, safe life for our fellow citizens.”
Amberg said that whether cities have a budgetary line item or other formal mechanism for making local community services contributions ”varies from city to city,” but noted that larger municipalities – as well as counties and states – typically have their own human services divisions, also funded in part with tax dollars.
”The larger they are, the more government tends to be involved in providing those services, doing the work of those nonprofits themselves,” she said.
The key decision
Businesses often confront the choice ”to build or buy.” Small towns have the same choice when it comes to critical community services.
Eugene and Springfield, for example, collaborate with Lane County to pay for human service providers. This collaborative payment model uses federal, state and local money (including tax dollars) to support local agencies, with the intergovernmental Human Services Commission guiding the use of money and overseeing the activities of agencies receiving the money.
By contracting, through Creswell First!, with nonprofit agencies to provide services directly to Creswell citizens, ”We're leveraging our $19,000 into maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in services provided, and our residents have access to services that they wouldn't otherwise have,” Amberg said.
And, she noted, the Community Contributions line item is reviewed and approved annually, with the rest of the city's budget, by a budget committee of seven elected and seven appointed members: ”So, 14 people, who serve everyone, always look at and approve the budget.”
For Amberg, Creswell's bottom line is this: ”We want those services in our city, we see the benefit of those services in our city, so we want these nonprofits to be successful in providing those benefits in our city,” she said. ”Therefore, we support them with city funds, which have always been approved by a budget committee.”