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Groups navigate new funding process

Nonprofit organizations in the city are navigating a new process that determines how they get City Council funding — and some aren’t happy about it.

“Since all this is being done through the city manager’s office, nobody knows what’s being done,” said Linda Bunch, the executive director of the Suffolk Art League, which gets its city funding through the Suffolk Fine Arts Commission. The commission has an appointment on Thursday to meet with city staff and state its case for its $14,000 funding request.

In this year’s budget process, the procedure for contributions to nonprofit organizations changed somewhat. In past years, the city manager recommended, and council voted to approve, amounts for each individual organization as part of the budget process, with no maximum funding amount being allocated.

This year, however, a sum of $225,000 was set aside in the budget process for disbursement to nonprofit organizations, with the amounts for each individual group to be determined later.

Two weeks ago, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn sent a letter to nonprofit organizations in the city that requested funding, inviting them to meet with city staff at a variety of predetermined times May 28-29 and June 4. Directors of the organizations were to contact the city manager’s office to set up 10-minute appointments, during which they would detail their funding requests and answer questions.

The letter also defines the criteria to be used in evaluating the requests, including proof of nonprofit status, nature of service provided, local funding ratio, matching funds, board membership that is representative of Suffolk’s residential base and prudent financial management.

In all, 17 organizations have had their appointments already or have them scheduled for Thursday, said city spokeswoman Debbie George.

Councilman Robert Barclay IV said he hasn’t had the chance to talk with the manager about the new process, but that it sounds as if the city is moving toward being able to “compare apples and apples.”

Barclay made, and council approved, a motion at the March 18 meeting directing the city manager and city attorney to draft an ordinance establishing a grants program for nonprofit organizations in the city. Barclay said his goal was to get a system in place to put everybody on a level playing field.

“Right now, people send in letters, they make verbal requests,” Barclay said, noting that if the council receives similar information from all groups, they can make better policy decisions.

That measure won’t take effect until the 2010 budget process, but Barclay said the current process is a step in the right direction.

Some organizations affected by the move, however, are concerned that the process isn’t open to the public and that they are losing money. Val Livingston, director of the Genieve Shelter, a domestic violence shelter, said she was informed the day before her appointment last week that she didn’t need to participate, because Genieve won’t be getting any money from the city.

“I’m going to lose about $18,000 by not being able to participate in that process,” she said. Livingston said the city told her that she will get federal dollars from the Community Development Block Grant program.

In the past, however, the shelter has received those funds in addition to money from the city. She said she won’t be getting more in CDBG funding this year, meaning a net loss of money and a resulting loss of services.

“I’m going to have to cut some services,” she said. “I may not be able to provide child care and transportation for the ladies.”

In addition, CDBG funds cannot be used for transitional housing, making funding the organization’s new CJ’s Place project a challenge.

“In all actuality, the local money – I was going to be using some of that to operate our transitional housing project,” she said.

Livingston’s appointment with city staff was scheduled for last Thursday. On Wednesday, she says she received a call saying she didn’t need to show up because she wouldn’t be getting money.

She went anyway.

“I still want to have a chance to sell our needs,” she said.

In a time when more and more people are turning to shelters to get out of domestic violence situations, $18,000 represents a lot of help for potential victims, Livingston said.

“We are the first line of defense,” Livingston said. “It’s kind of an illogical thing to cut the dollars from the shelters.”

George said the Genieve Shelter was advised that its funding request was adopted in the budget through the CDBG allocation.

“With limited resources, you have to be strategic,” George said.

Suffolk Art League director Bunch said she will apply for money from the Suffolk Fine Arts Commission, as in years past, but she is unsure how much she will be able to get.

“They’re kind of waiting to find out if they have any money,” she said, adding that the state offers matching grant money that relies on the city anteing up.

Caroline Martin, the interim executive director at the Western Tidewater Free Clinic, said the process makes sense to her.

“I really think that since we’re utilizing tax dollars, we need to be able to explain how it is benefiting the population within our service area,” she said, noting that she is always pleased to tell the story of how the clinic has helped thousands in its short history.

“To have an opportunity to tell our story of how we do and who we serve is valuable in making those decisions,” Martin said. The clinic has requested $100,000 from the city this year.