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Portland agencies, councilors question grant methodology

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Portland agencies, councilors question grant methodology

PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday ordered another review of grant funding recommendations for social service providers, despite objections that doing so would further muddy what some believe is an already a flawed process.

The council voted 6-2 for a committee to explore percentage allocations for the top-scoring social services applicants vying for Community Development Block Grant funds. The order followed a three-hour public hearing where several unsuccessful service providers questioned the scoring used to determine which applicants would receive money.

The hearing was the first of two scheduled on about $2.1 million available in CDBG funding for fiscal year 2011. More than $1.3 million is earmarked for development activities, such as sidewalk repairs and infrastructure improvements to nonprofit facilities. Another $557,000 will be distributed to social service programs that requested more than $1.5 million – far exceeding the city's gains in federal dollars.

The city received 32 applications for CDBG funds. Fourteen were recommended for funding by the CDBG Annual Allocation Committee and City Manager Joe Gray.

Gray and the committee also recommended a $62,000 allocation for Hot Suppa!, a Congress Street restaurant, to help pay for new kitchen equipment and job creation. One resident Monday objected to the recommendation, arguing funding preference should be given to nonprofits, not private businesses.

The council's decision was initiated by Councilor David Marshall,  who said that awarding successful applicants a percentage of their request rather than the full amount could spread the available money to those who scored just below the funding threshold.

Marshall reasoned that social services agencies sometimes requested more than they needed, while others could stretch their funding.

Marshall's suggestion triggered a lengthy and meandering debate that resulted in several councilors changing their minds. The decision also exasperated Annette Rogers, chairwoman of the allocation committee, who scrambled to the podium after adjournment to request clarification of the council's directive.

The committee has until March 22 to review percentage allocations, which Rogers said is not enough time.

Mayor Nick Mavodones and Councilor John Coyne opposed the decision. Mavodones said he agrees there are flaws in the city's process for awarding CDBG funding, but he is concerned that revisiting the issue this year could open the door for further lobbying efforts by service providers who didn't make the cut.

"I think it's unfair  to ask a volunteer (committee) to bring this in, in a such a short amount of time," Mavodones said, adding that the council's charge wasn't prescriptive enough.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue left before the council vote. However, he argued that there may have been errors in application scoring, an issue raised directly by LearningWorks director Joel Russ and two other applicants.

On Tuesday, Donoghue said he didn't support comittee review of full versus partial funding because it would've been "unfair and evasive" to burden it with a political decision.

LearningWorks was one of eight programs funded last year that didn't score high enough this year. Its $60,000 request to fund two new positions was a tenth of a percentage point behind the lowest program recommended for funding. Russ said the score would have been higher if the committee correctly awarded it extra points for serving the Bayside neighborhood.

Meanwhile, some councilors worried that the scoring inherently favored some programs over others, a concern echoed by the allocation committee in its Feb. 8 report to Gray. The committee specifically identified the Police Department's Community Policing program and Health and Human Services Department's Behavior Health program, which consume 58 percent of the available social services funding.

On Monday, Rogers said the committee was concerned the two programs would one day "crowd out" other applicants.

The Police Department's request is $196,400, more than $48,800 greater than last year, an increase questioned by the committee because it did not appear to include additional staffing or services, according to published minutes.

The Police Department said half of the increase would fund raises outlined in contracts following the recent unionization of five existing community policing coordinators. The remainder of the increase would pay to move the West End Community Policing Center.

The Behavior Health program justified its increase of more than $33,000 on the hiring of an administrative assistant and $2,000 for taxi vouchers to transport clients to detoxification centers.

The increase in the community policing allocations concerned Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who said the scoring automatically tilted in the Police Department's favor.

"Certain groups will get funds every year while others won't have a chance," Leeman said. "That's inherently unfair."

Penny St. Louis Littell, director of the city's Planning and Urban Development Department, acknowledged "flaws" in the process, but argued that the committee's scoring was "defensible and accurate."

Monday's meeting sets the stage for what several councilors promised will be a lengthy public hearing on March 22. The council, which has the final say on the CDBG allocations, is expected to vote on the recommendations at that time.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net