Tuesday, January 20, 2015

In an unusual move, bill before council would send $100,000 to the Neighborhoods Resource Center

News reports last summer said that council member Scott Davis is a board member of Nashville's Neighborhoods Resource Center. CM Davis has introduced a resolution to take $100,000 from "the Undesignated Fund Balance of the General Fund of the General Services District" in order to fund a grant that would pay for some of the NRC's programs. The resolution has been introduced in council committee twice, and on both occasions deferred due to CM Davis' absence from the meetings. CM Davis deferred the bill in council a couple of weeks ago until February "to get information to council and to work a few things out."

This is not the first time the NRC stood to get contributions from Metro government. Back in the 2006-07 session, Metro Council approved approximately $100,000 for NRC from their "Discretionary Infrastructure Funds" pool which was used mostly for private non-profits organizations instead of public infrastructure. To be specific, the council had voted themselves $1.95 million in these "infrastructure funds" during the summer of 2006, but 80% of the money approved to be spent before the end of the fiscal year was privatized for organizations like NRC. Labeling them "infrastructure funds" was a monumental act of deception on the part of the Metro Council.

What makes CM Davis's resolution different is not the money to be privatized for NRC. What makes this proposal different is that it proposes to draw money from a fund that is not generally spent on anything but public infrastructure as far as I can tell. Here are the Metro departments that where these funds have gone in the past:
  • Dept. of Health
  • District Attorney
  • General Services
  • Farmers’ Market
  • Codes Administration
  • Office of Trustee
  • Metropolitan Transit Authority
  • Fire Dept.
  • Metro Action Commission
  • Public Works
In 2009, a $125,000 contribution was made from the undesignated fund balance to the Belmont Presidential Debate. Otherwise, the lion's share of these appropriations seem to pay for public infrastructure rather than for subsidizing private organizations.

I have tended to feel concern about NRC's collaborative relationship with Metro government over the years, and I worry that tying them to more public funding will blunt any critical role they might play when occasions call for dissent, not collaboration. I am also worried that $100,000 to NRC might be that much less money for authentic and legitimate infrastructure projects that need it. Finally, continuing to treat NRC as a private partner and extension of Metro government softens the Mayor's responsibility to fund a robust and responsive Office of Neighborhoods, and hence be accountable to constituents. As a private agency, NRC is ultimately only responsible to its board rather than to voters. In general, giving money to autonomous, unelected non-profits also gives elected officials separation and deniability if funds are not truly used for "the general welfare."

CM Davis owes taxpayers a clear explanation on why NRC is a more worthy recipient of these funds than Metro departments who have more direct influence neighborhood quality of life. It is not that I don't support NRC; I have yet to be convinced that this is a wise practice for fundraising and funding general services.

UPDATE: in December 2014, NRC sent out email blasts urging supporters to lobby for passage of the resolution. Here content from one such email:

On Tuesday night, Metro Council will vote on Resolution RS2014-1316. This resolution will provide the Neighborhoods Resource Center with partial funding, in the amount of $100,000.
We ask that you contact Metro Council Members immediately and encourage them to vote for this resolution.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we are within our rights to send this email requesting your support. We have provided a sample email and background information below.
We hope that we can count on your support and your action on this important resolution.

Jim Hawk, Executive Director
Mark Wright, Board President

Sample Email to Metro Council
Dear Metro Council Members,
I am writing in support of Resolution RS2014-1316. The proposed legislation will provide the Neighborhoods Resource Center with critical emergency funds that will, in turn, support neighborhoods across Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County.
I am a member of __________________ neighborhood and I have personally worked with the Neighborhoods Resource Center. I know that they have helped our neighborhood succeed and have helped us work more effectively with Metro government.

Background Regarding this Resolution
July 2014

Over 75 neighborhood leaders and other key allies gathered for a series of meetings to discuss the financial crisis and offer recommendations. The leaders agreed that NRC was vital to the success of Nashville's neighborhoods. Dissolution was not an option.

Neighborhood leaders recommended diversifying NRC's revenue streams, which specifically included making an emergency request to Metro Council. Both neighborhood leaders and several Metro Council members wondered why this hadn't been done even before the financial crisis. Council Member Scott Davis was asked if he would champion the cause before Metro Council.

August 2014

A new Board of Directors and Executive Director were chosen.

In a two-week period, $10,200 was raised to provide for the mortgage and utilities for six months.

All staff were laid off.

The Board of Directors and volunteer staff began working on a funding plan that involved revenue streams from corporate gifts and sponsorships, foundations and grants, individual/household memberships, fundraising and events, and support from Metro Council.

October 2014

NRC began launching its new Individual/Household Membership Program, submitted grant proposals and started work on a 2015 Corporate Gift and Sponsorship Program.

November 2014

The Neighborhoods Resource Center held a series of open public meetings to discuss progress and plans to diversify funding. Leaders were again asked if NRC should move forward on a funding request to Metro Council (Unanimous Agreement to move forward).
After obtaining support from the Mayor's Office, Council Member Scott Davis moved forward and submitted his proposal to the Finance & Budget Committee.

December 2014

Resolution RS2014-1316 is submitted to Metro Council for action on Tuesday, December 16th.

To date, supporters of the Neighborhoods Resource Center have secured over $55,000 in funding. NRC is projected to raise an additional $77,000 (from sources other than Metro Council) by the end of our fiscal year in June.

Worth underscoring are the facts that unanimous agreement was expressed at public meetings for lobbying Metro Council for subsidies to keep NRC going and that they required support from Karl Dean before moving forward. CM Scott Davis withdrew the funding resolution at the last council meeting. Curiously, the NRC board had requested the withdrawal. I have seen no follow-up correspondence from NRC explaining the course change.

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