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City CDBG shake-up - Westside to lose strategy-area; funding cut cancels publication of OWN newsletter

       As part of a new city strategy that has community-wide implications, the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) is no longer designated for funding by the City of Colorado Springs.
       This was confirmed at the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO) meeting Sept. 15 by Aimee Cox, manager of community initiatives for the Mayor's Office.
       The change was not completely unexpected for OWN going into the 2015 fiscal year (because of prior communications with Cox), but OWN President Welling Clark was irate, even suggesting a lawsuit against Mayor Steve Bach, after finding out that the 2014 money has been pulled back as well.
During the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO) meeting Sept. 15, Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) President Welling Clark (right) and CONO President Dave Munger listen to Aimee Cox, manager of community initiatives for the Mayor's Office. The meeting was in the recently opened CONO office downtown.
Westside Pioneer photo
       “We were told we would be funded under our old contract,” Clark told Cox at the CONO meeting. “We had it in writing from [an employee no longer with the city.]"
       Believing that the funds were simply delayed, OWN has drawn from its cash reserves to cover operational costs. These were primarily used to pay for its summer newsletter, the Westside Story - direct-mailed to about 8,000 households - and the annual Westside Neighbors Picnic in July.
       Formed by the city in 1978 as a volunteer nonprofit providing neighborhood outreach for what was then viewed as a rundown area, OWN has contracted with the city to publish a newsletter and organize events (such as the picnic) to build community among Westside residents. For that purpose, the current deal calls on the city to give OWN $7,000 a year.
       Because the money comes from the federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a fiscal year of April 1 to March 31 is used. In previous years, OWN has received its funding before the fiscal year began, Clark said.
       OWN had hoped to publish its fall newsletter around Oct. 1, but gave up that plan because its remaining reserves were insufficient to cover the estimated $1,700 publication/mailing expense.
       If the promised fiscal-2014 city funding is not received, Clark told Cox he would "recommend to the OWN board that the neighborhood sue the mayor of the City of Colorado Springs. I am very angry about this issue."
       Cox defended the city by explaining that the decision had been forced on it by HUD, and that the news did not come in until the end of August. What HUD has told Colorado Springs, she said, is that the neighborhood groups have been getting their money from an ineligible “cap” (compartment) within the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds that the federal agency allocates to the city. “Unfortunately,” she elaborated, the cap that could have funded it this year has no available money.
       In response to follow-up questions, Cox conceded that HUD only learned about the cap mistake because the city auditor (who works under the mayor) initiated a study of city CDBG spending in early 2013 and shared his findings with HUD. She could not say who in the city had directed the auditor to take on that study.
       Cox did tell Clark she would try to find a way to help with OWN's monetary snag, “but I can't promise anything right now.”
Heavy equipment was needed to make room for what would eventually be a cement block retaining wall and sidewalk on the east/north side of Manitou Boulevard near Chestnut Street in January 2011. The work was part of a $145,000 project - funded with city-designated Westside Neighborhood Strategy Area (NSA) money - that filled in missing sidewalks and added pedestrian ramps between Chestnut and Monument streets. Under a new city policy, the Westside would lose its NSA status.
Westside Pioneer file photo
       Dave Munger, president of CONO, also pledged to look for possibilities within his organization, which represents dozens of neighborhoods in the city.
       The Westside Story is in its 37th year. The four-page tabloid had been printed four times a year (one for each season) until 2012, when, seeking to be helpful after a citywide HUD funding cut, the OWN board offered to reduce its city share from $8,500 to $7,000, Clark said. As a result, OWN could only afford to publish three times in the 2012 fiscal year (summer, fall and winter). Since then, even after receiving more money from HUD, the city has contracted with OWN at the 2012 level of $7,000; as a result, OWN only published three newsletters in fiscal 2013 and was on the same pace this year.
       Note: As a fallback for OWN, if the city funding issue can't be sorted out, the Westside Pioneer publishers have offered to give the entity a column in the Pioneer's quarterly print editions, with the next one coming out in mid-November.
       Of particular concern to Clark is giving at least 30 days notice to Westsiders about OWN's annual town meeting in March, at which at least three of its nine board seats will be up for election.
       OWN's monetary plight is connected to a new city policy, in which much of the city's CDBG funding will no longer be tied to its five Neighborhood Strategy Areas (NSAs). The biggest (and oldest) of these is the Westside NSA, which chiefly takes in the older Westside.
       The other NSAs' advocacy groups (also run by volunteers) typically use their operational funds like OWN does, for newsletters, cleanups and/or various types of outreach. If not for the HUD ineligible-cap decision, the amount of such funds divvied out to those groups this year (including the $7,000 to OWN) would have totalled $13,650, Cox said.
       The new city policy will also affect a different, larger CDBG fund, starting in the 2015 fiscal year. According to Cox, half a million dollars will be in play in two categories: public facilities ($225,000) and services ($275,000). Disbursed in past years by the city through the NSAs - for example, on the Westside for new or upgraded sidewalks, curbs and gutters - this money will be open now to competition among any interested nonprofit entities in the city that have done the necessary government-required paperwork.
       A mayor-appointed board will make decisions each year on such projects/proposals, then put together an allocation package that the Mayor's Office will present to City Council for approval, Cox said.
       An expected benefit of the new policy will be that CDBG money can be spent where it will do the most good at a given time. For example, city analyses have used seven criteria (including safety, economic vitality, housing stock and quality of life) to see where the greatest needs are, and the southeast part of the city has been particularly found wanting, she outlined.
       The older Westside also could still qualify for CDBG funds, with aging housing stock being its greatest need, Cox pointed out.
       But the longest that the city would expect to focus on a given neighborhood would be “2 years, not 38 years,” she commented, in reference to the Westside NSA's time frame.
       The minimum amount of any such CDBG grant would be $10,000, she said.
       The neighborhood representatives at the meeting were enthused at one potential outcome mentioned by Cox - that CONO, as a larger entity in which they are members, could seek public services/facilities funds on their behalf. Munger said he was OK with that idea, although observing that some logistics will need to be worked out.
       In any case, the competition will likely be fierce, Cox said, in part because major nonprofits in the city will also be eyeing that bucket of money.
       For example, starting in 2015, under the categories of public services/public facilities, groups seeking ways to help the homeless could apply, Cox said, in answer to a question. In that regard, the mayor has announced an initiative to end homelessness in Colorado Springs. Also, some non-NSA CDBG funds are used that way now, and Cox said that initiative will be a priority going forward.
       The Westside Pioneer has asked the city for a pie chart defining who receives the current CDBG funding and in what percentages, so as to compare past allocations with future ones. Cox said she does not currently have that type of breakdown, but plans to put that information together at some point.
       At the meeting, she told CONO she wants to stay in close communication going forward to develop as favorable a result as possible. Also, in a document sent to neighborhood groups, Cox stressed the city's interest in working with them. “Please note that this change in funding does not change our commitment to seeking input from neighborhoods when we set priorities for the annual action plan, including infrastructure needs; and low-income residents in your neighborhoods are still eligible to apply for housing rehabilitation programs. We believe in the importance of neighborhoods, and are in discussions with CONO about how to continue to support neighborhood leadership development and neighborhood cleanups throughout the city.”

Westside Pioneer article
(Posted 9/16/14, updated 9/17/14; Community: Neighborhoods)

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