Awarding of Neighborhood Funds to Large Nonprofits Draws Criticism

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

A D.C. fund created to improve the city's neglected neighborhoods is being divided among several agencies and funneled to big-budget nonprofits such as the Kennedy Center in Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's new proposed spending plan.

The Neighborhood Investment Fund was set up in 2004 after community groups, in particular the Washington Interfaith Network, raised an outcry about neighborhoods that sorely needed improvements. Up to $10 million annually from personal property taxes goes into the fund. By law, the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development is supposed to gather community input before deciding how to use the fund, which will have more than $17 million in 2010, according to the budget.

But some D.C. Council members say that has not happened during this budget cycle.

"This particular budget, they've eliminated the whole process of coming to the community with a spending plan. They just want to give the money to who they want to give the money to," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). "It's just another way to do earmarks."

Sean Madigan, a spokesman for the deputy mayor's office, said in an e-mail last night that there was an error in the budget book and that more money will be awarded to community-based projects than is currently reflected in the document.

In the past, community groups have jockeyed for the money after city officials have met with neighborhood leaders. The targeted neighborhoods are spread across the city: Anacostia, Bellevue, Bloomingdale, Brookland, Brightwood, Columbia Heights, Congress Heights, Deanwood Heights, Eckington, Edgewood, H Street NW, Logan Circle, Shaw, Upper Georgia Avenue and Washington Highlands.

Under the proposed budget, only $5.4 million of the $17 million will be set aside for neighborhood groups. About $1.6 million will be transferred to the Commission on Arts and Humanities and distributed through grants of mostly $250,000 to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Washington National Opera, the D.C. Jewish Community Center and other groups, all based in Northwest.

Madigan said that the budget is actually less than $17 million and that the deputy mayor's office will award $11.8 million to neighborhood groups.

But any transfer of funds could set off a controversy similar to one that arose in 2008 when Ford's Theatre, controlled by the National Park Service, received $10 million despite protests from local groups.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has supported the arts and earmarking for them, said, "They're good organizations."

Although the Kennedy Center is considered a national organization, Evans said it has programs for D.C. public school students.

"We're both local and national," said Darrell Ayers, vice president for education at the Kennedy Center. "We are a D.C. organization, and we have to be responsive to the community here."

The Kennedy Center has a special program that allows every public school fifth-grader to see a show there, including performances by the National Symphony Orchestra, Ayers said. "We pay for tickets and transportation," he added.

Brown, chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, said that the groups may be "worthy" but that he is disappointed with the process and how some remaining funds could be used under the plan.

Under the proposed spending plan, the deputy mayor's office would receive $2.4 million to "restore economic development capacity" within the agency -- money that Brown said would be better used by neighborhood groups.

Other money would go to the departments of parks and recreation, human services and health for various programs and projects, including $900,000 for playground equipment and green space at Shepherd Park in Northwest.

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