Framework for the future, or failure?

Opinions differ on the city’s plan for sustained neighborhood funding

Public comment

City officials are collecting public comments on the framework through March 17. For more information or to download the Framework for the Future, visit www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us and search “NRP beyond 2009.” The City Council will review the public comment on April 3. A second draft of the framework is due sometime this summer.

As the City of Minneapolis prepares for the end of the 20-year Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) in 2009, it has released a “Framework for the Future” that proposes a major reworking of that existing community-engagement model. While city officials claim the new plan will empower people, some community members argue it represents a shift from grassroots activism to centralized city control, and they’d like to see a continued, fully funded NRP instead. Critics of the plan have even taken to calling it a “framework for failure” that would diminish citizen participation, while proponents are optimistic about streamlining the way residents get involved with local government.

A framework work group — consisting of city officials and NRP staff — charged with addressing NRP’s “focus, funding and governance” delivered the eight-page framework to the City Council late last year.

According to the report itself, the Framework for the Future “represents broad agreement on the outlines of a structure for the continuation of the NRP” and its “connection to the broader community participation work of the city.” (The NRP question is one part of a larger retooling of community engagement, undertaken by the city since 2006.) Under the proposal, $2 million would go to support the administration of neighborhood groups every year. Right now, they receive about $1.6 million annually for administrative costs, according to the report. Funding would flow to groups based on need and size, as it does now, said Ward 13 Council Member Betsy Hodges during a Feb. 4 informational session that was open to the public.

The framework also proposes establishing a pool of discretionary dollars called the Neighborhood Investment Fund (NIF), from which organizations could draw dollars through either a local planning process or a competitive micro-grant program. However, funding sources for NIF haven’t been identified, said Hodges. Currently, neighborhood organizations receive about $3.25 million for discretionary purposes, according to city information.

The framework would also create a new community participation governance board, similar to the existing NRP Policy Board, to provide oversight to various community-engagement actions. However, the framework doesn’t stipulate the number of seats; some spots would be filled by neighborhood elections, with other representatives appointed by the City Council or mayor. The ratio of elected to appointed seats is unclear.

While NRP is currently administered by an agency separate from the city, the framework proposes a community participation division in the city coordinator’s department, with a $1 million budget to administer money and services to neighborhood groups.

An extended hand, or a power play by City Hall?

The NRP has funneled $300 million through city-designated neighborhood groups for improvements in housing, parks, schools, environmental initiatives and other programs, while supporting some organizations with funding for part- and full-time staff. However, NRP funding — which comes from tax increments of local development projects — has dwindled since changes in state property tax laws in 2001. In October, the City Council agreed to secure at least 70 percent of NRP’s second, and final, 10-year phase allocations — about $73 million.

NRP can be credited for increasing the number of active neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis; before its inception in 1990, only 46 the current 72 neighborhood organizations existed.

Ward 6 Council Member Robert Lilligren, who serves on the framework work group, said that, despite NRP’s accomplishments, the program has polarized the city and community, which should be working in tandem. “Neighborhood action plans should be influencing capital, policy and programmatic decisions in City Hall,” he said. “Right now, it’s very internal to neighborhoods. They don’t affect broader city decisions.”

Lilligren acknowledged that, while “there’s a perception in neighborhoods that City Council members want to hog money and authority, we want more coordinated ways of working together, not to co-opt neighborhood authority … At the core of this is trust, or distrust, between City Hall and neighborhoods, or City Hall and NRP,” he said.

Advocates of a growing “save NRP” movement, however, claim that the framework adds an extra layer of bureaucracy that shifts power away from the neighborhoods to City Hall. Wendy Menken, president of the Southeast Como Improvement Association (SECIA) board, said volunteerism will go down if people feel they are only advancing the city’s agenda. She questioned the rationale behind the framework. “The only reason to take apart an effective working system is that the city wants to retain control of money or citizen processes,” she said. “Where is the cost-benefit analysis for this?”

A Coalition of Neighbors 4 NRP is circulating a petition to sustain NRP; the Longfellow Community Council (LCC) and SECIA have both signed it. Meanwhile, voters at 20 of 139 precinct caucuses in Minneapolis passed resolutions on Feb. 5 to keep NRP alive; the resolutions are expected to move on to city- and state-level conventions, said Menken.

Hodges said the proposed framework would bring more transparency because, “it would more closely resemble the funding structure of the entire enterprise … it would be more tied with Minneapolis government.” She also introduced the idea of opening representation on the board to NIF donors, a point that Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon disagrees with. Although he does support the framework, Gordon said the community participation governance board would need to be primarily devoted to community members to be truly “resident-controlled,” as the framework states. “Right now, there are some foundations represented on the NRP Policy Board. I even question how appropriate that is,” Gordon said, pointing out that residents don’t represent a majority on the Policy Board, which he would also like to keep intact.

Gordon and other city officials say the framework’s provision for a community participation division will better coordinate staff and neighborhood representatives, providing a clear path for people to get help or learn about the city’s decision-making.

Still, how much power the governance board would have is debatable; work group members disagreed about who should hire and supervise the director of the new community participation division. Without that kind of authority, some community members at the meeting pointed out, it takes on more of an advisory role. To that, Ward 1 Council Member Paul Ostrow responded, “The NRP Policy Board structure today is advisory. Every action comes before the City Council,” he said. “If it’s independent, it’s not accountable to the city structure.”

Neighborhood organizations react

Incorporation into the “city structure” would also mean the new division would be pitted against police and fire departments for resources, making it vulnerable to cutbacks every year, critics say. With 81 neighborhoods, each group could receive something around $24,000 of the $2 million promised for administration (some will get more or less), estimated Justin Eibenholzl, environmental coordinator for SECIA. That will barely cover costs above and beyond hosting meetings, he said.

Wendy Menken, SECIA board president and a volunteer, said the framework’s plan could mean as much as a 75–90 percent reduction in the group’s capacity. Currently, funds from NRP and the city comprise about half of its total annual budget, which ranges from $120,000–$165,000 in any given year. Grants make up the other half, and only about 20 percent or less of NRP dollars are used for administration, according to NRP guidelines. “Over the years, we’ve managed to leverage almost dollar per dollar, at the core level,” said Menken.

SECIA has two full-time workers and one part-time staffer; grants help pay for the salaries of Eibenholzl’s full-time position, for example. If the city became its sole funding source, the impact would be two-fold, said Menken. “We’d be hard-pressed to have full-time staff … much less the discretionary money to leverage those dollars,” she said, adding that the change could cause SECIA to revert back to a volunteer-driven operation, like it was pre-NRP.

“It could kill some neighborhood organizations in some communities,” she said. “I could see whole neighborhoods giving up and saying they’re not going to fight anymore. That’s what it was like before NRP. Back then, the whole goal was to react to whatever city was doing. There wasn’t time or energy or capacity to do creative things.”

Without getting into the details of the proposal, Melanie Majors, LCC’s executive director, said the whole process has her and other neighborhood leaders scrambling. She believes the question of neighborhood funding is important enough to warrant more discussion over a longer timeframe. “This is about the stability of the city in the future,” she said. “This is really an example of the city not really caring much about what happens in neighborhood organizations … There’s a lot of disenchantment about the city’s ability to facilitate community engagement.”

Unlike many of his fellow neighborhood representatives, Sheldon Mains, president of the Seward Neighborhood Group (SNG), said NRP should change, and he supports at least some aspects of the framework. That way, the real decision-makers aren’t hidden from public view. Plus, neighborhoods already count on a council member for any sort of influence. “I actually kind of like it being directly inside of city government. It may help with coordination,” he said.

NRP Director Bob Miller said he is glad the city is acknowledging the importance of neighborhood groups, but he believes the city is taking a step backwards. “Other people would like to emulate what we’re doing, yet we’re moving in the exact opposite direction,” he said. “No one else anywhere put this much control in the hands of citizens for this long … Look at what people did with it, how it influenced their attitudes toward their neighborhood. It had a significant impact on people.”

last revised: March 3, 2008