A long-term engagement

The city looks to define civic participation as NRP dwindles

In May, the City Council adopted a community engagement plan it hopes will enable and improve civic participation in the governmental decision-making process. The plan is part of an ongoing community engagement initiative that may extend beyond City Hall to encompass a broader range of programs, services and more, according to the city’s 43-page Community Engagement Report, drafted in November of last year.

While the city moves ahead in defining community engagement for the coming years, some council members — and especially neighborhood organizations — have cautioned that the process has gone forward with too little input from the community and ignored past and current models of engagement, primarily the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), currently funded only through 2009.

In adopting the plan, the Council has also taken steps that may answer these criticisms. In the coming months, a task force comprised of community members will take a closer look at neighborhood groups and other civic organizations to identify a clear set of rules and expectations. Taskforce members will report regularly on findings and present preliminary recommendations in July, and the task force’s report will be aired publicly in the late summer and early fall, in time for recommendations before the city’s 2008 budget is approved in December.

Meanwhile, as this paper went to press, the City Council was expected to direct staff to take a closer look at NRP and how it has been used to improve neighborhoods over the past 20 years. By the end of the year, the council is expected to adopt a legislative agenda regarding the future of NRP.

What does community engagement mean?

At an April 26 meeting of the Committee of the Whole, Ward 6 Council Member Robert Lilligren described community engagement as a complex notion with many moving parts, one that is vital to the city’s future. Lilligren, who chairs the committee, has pushed to bring community engagement to the forefront.

“This is new territory, a new expression of our value of community engagement,” he said. “There’s no predetermined outcome.”

In 2002, the mayor and City Council embarked on the community engagement initiative, issuing a statement of commitment that expressed the value of community members’ voices in government — outside the ballot box — and promising to discover new ways to incorporate their input more effectively.

The community engagement report centers on eight principles that would make the government easy to use, with consistent two-way dialogue between the city and community. States the report: “The City Council did not direct the work group to conduct extensive additional community engagement activities as part of preparing this summary report.”

Rather, it structures already-existing feedback, said City Coordinator Steven Bosacker. It articulates that the broader public should be meaningfully represented in every level of decision making — and be held accountable — while local and citywide planners should work in tandem with each other; and improvements are always necessary to boost confidence in the system.

To achieve these goals, the plan suggests five recommendations to provide decision-making authority for various types of city decisions. The city needs to clarify advisory group roles, outline community engagement expectations, set up regular two-way communication systems, and coordinate with other public jurisdictions, the report explains.

Bosacker, who is leading that effort, has listened to testimonies at numerous neighborhood meetings. Bosacker said residents often perceive the city’s bureaucracy as daunting. Although there is some sort of rationale to how city departments operate, in general, “Community engagement activities aren’t very predictable or understandable,” Bosacker said.

Currently, much of the city’s public outreach occurs through a latticework of over 50 official boards and commissions, plus 81 city-contracted neighborhood groups — comprising one of the country’s most massive networks for community engagement.

Over the past four years, city officials have collected feedback from numerous stakeholders across Minneapolis. Based on that input, the work plan adopted in May recommends that the city identify roles and funding for neighborhood, community and cultural organizations, while also sharpening the focus and future of NRP.

Bosacker stressed that community engagement is a two-way street; people need to know where to go to voice their opinions on issues facing their communities. Likewise, community members are a valuable resource for lawmakers. Many good ideas come from residents, Bosacker said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak told the Committee of the Whole that any changes in the model for community engagement should keep pace with technological advances and other non-traditional tools that allow people to give input even if they’re unable to attend a 7 p.m. meeting.

R.I.P. NRP?

The discussion comes as the city’s population is shifting, and dollars dedicated to block clubs and NRP are dwindling.

Under NRP, neighborhood groups have developed action plans that address community issues. NRP funds have been used to hire organizational staff, create youth programs and fix up blighted properties or repair dilapidated playgrounds, among many other projects.

In the broad sense, NRP has been the birth and backbone of most the city’s official neighborhood organizations. Since NRP was authorized by the state in 1990, the number of neighborhood organizations has shot up from 19 to 81, according to NRP Director Bob Miller. More than 1,000 community members serve on those organization’s boards, with many others serving on subcommittees and as volunteers.

The program utilizes a financial mechanism called tax-increment financing (TIF), which allows the city to leverage development by borrowing bonds, Miller explained.
Tax revenue stays within a tax-increment district as the city gradually pays back the loan. NRP dips into the Minneapolis Community Development Agency’s Common Project, a “tax-increment district” yielding $20 million annually for two decades.

After the loan is paid off, tax revenues return to the city’s General Fund. The Midtown Exchange, Downtown’s City Center and an Elliot Park housing complex, East Village, are among some TIF developments that are scattered all over the city. TIF, however, is controversial because it withholds tax dollars anticipated by the county and public school district.

NRP stands out from other municipal programs that encourage citizens to get involved because it also empowers them to actually implement changes, which is rare in other municipalities, Miller said.

NRP has been split into two phases; neighborhoods are implementing plans and receiving funding according to individual timelines. It can take neighborhoods up to 10 years to complete an NRP action plan, Miller said.

Still, it’s debatable as to whether or not NRP will somehow be extended beyond 2009, when the cash flow is planned to stop. While some neighborhood organizations plan to continue in whatever phase they’re in at that time, projections made in March indicate a $7.7 million shortfall for “phase two” allocations.

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon has been an advocate for greater emphasis on neighborhood groups and NRP, which has been instrumental in transforming neighborhoods, he said. “I think NRP has had great benefits in terms of community involvement and engagement,” said Gordon. “It encourages them to set priorities and make decisions. Some improvements have been incredible.”

Gordon said his understanding of neighborhood sentiment is that there is fear and concern surrounding the loss of NRP. An early draft of the community engagement report neglected to mention neighborhood groups or NRP at all, said Gordon over the phone.

The City Council voted earlier this year against endorsing a bill introduced by State Representative Karen Clark (61B) requiring a study of potential funding streams for NRP. The City Council urged state legislators not to act on the bill, citing the need to closely examine NRP at the city level first — the process now underway.
Gordon, along with Lilligren and Ward 9 Council Member Gary Schiff, was in the minority in supporting the Clark bill, which was also backed by the NRP Policy Board. Clark couldn’t be reached for comment.

“If NRP doesn’t continue, then neighborhood groups will have to fend for themselves for operation,” cautioned Miller, estimating that as many as half of the neighborhood groups would disappear within three years of NRP fizzling. Another 80 percent of them would be gone within five years, he said.

“To lose that, to voluntarily give it up, would be a tragedy,” he said. “The city loses a lot if that resource isn’t there.” Miller gave an example from his neighborhood, Fulton, where residents planted around 800 trees along the streets to compensate for thousands lost in a storm.

“Planting trees on the boulevard seems small, but it’s a huge issue for people in that area,” he said. “NRP has given purpose to participation. It has given people the opportunity to achieve results.”

City Council President Barb Johnson (Ward 4) stressed the importance of neighborhood organizations, calling them “the backbone of the community.

“They engage the process and are a conduit for us to our neighbors at a grassroots level,” she said. “I think it will be important that we protect them in the community engagement discussion for that basic infrastructure that they provide.”

Johnson said she’s optimistic about the city’s direction, and she hopes the current plan will bring consistency to the engagement process. “One thing I hope is that we get some templates; when a city decision needs to be reviewed, we have a process to follow that is consistent in every community,” she said.

last revised: May 31, 2007