Since 1986, Montgomery County has funded a small nonprofit organization named Interages, a mentoring program that connects senior citizens with young people.
It had been part of the county executive's annual budget proposal, but this year his aides decided Interages did not mesh with their priorities and dropped the group.
Montgomery County Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) made sure that Interages got the $51,440 it requested, in the form of a community grant, during the council's review of the budget. Silverman, who is expected to run for county executive in 2006, cited what he called the program's long history of good works. "I could not for the life of me understand why it got cut," he said.
Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who chairs the council's Health and Human Services Committee, abstained from a committee recommendation to fund Interages. He later relaxed his opposition. "It was a program of great interest to Mr. Silverman," Leventhal said.
The council distributed 45 community and arts grants this year totaling $2.3 million, but several members say they need a better, more objective system for deciding which groups get taxpayer money.
Although grant applications are reviewed in public council sessions, final decisions on funding take place during private consultations between the council president and individual members, and among their aides. This year, projects backed by Silverman received the largest share of the funding -- nearly $447,000, or about one-fifth of the grant money the council disbursed.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who alone among council members did not sponsor any requests this year, said the grants are "extremely political." He added: "Who people know affects greatly the grant process on the County Council. There needs to be less of that and . . . more outside review."
Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who joined Andrews in November in suggesting that the council forgo community grants this year to save money, nearly tied with Silverman. Grants she supported received nearly $444,000. "It served no purpose to stand in the corner and not play," she said.
The cost of the grants is a pittance in the context of the county's $3.3 billion operating budget, but it is a significant proportion of the discretionary money that the council raised this year by boosting taxes and cutting expenditures in the spending plan proposed in March by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
These discretionary funds -- generated mainly through an increase in the energy tax of $37 per household -- totaled about $15 million, which the council earmarked to restore library hours, expand mass transit and open a community pharmacy, as well as to fund nonprofit organizations that successfully petitioned council members for grants ranging from $10,000 to $410,000.
"It is an arbitrary process. . . . We very clearly need to have a good look at these elements," said council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), referring to the grants.
Leventhal put grant applicants through an unusually grueling public hearing last month. He mixed calls for reform with strident rhetorical questions -- "Are we going to put in place mechanisms that assess outcomes . . . or are we just going to hand out money without accountability?" -- and characterizes the council's funding of arts groups as "randomly handing out money."
Under Montgomery's budget system, the county executive can also fund nonprofits. In his budget this year, Duncan proposed nearly $1.6 million in community grants.
While Duncan's staff puts some grant applicants through independent review panels, Duncan designated most of the $1.6 million to fund "private agency requests" that are not vetted by a panel. Silverman argues that this lack of a formal process is no different from the way in which the council reviews grant applications, but Duncan says that even private agency requests are scrutinized by county staffers.
"There's no process on the council side; it's all closed-door, behind-the-scenes. There's no review process," Duncan said.
Praisner and Andrews worry the loudest that the council is spending too much money. Praisner cast a lone vote against the operating budget this year, a striking move in a county legislature that prizes collegiality. "Because the council approved a budget that is not sustainable," she said in a statement, "we will be back next year, going through the same budget-cutting exercises that we have for the past several budgets. Or worse, raising taxes again."
Nonetheless, she sponsored or co-sponsored eight grant applications requesting nearly $750,000 -- a sum greater than the total of any other council member's grant requests. She backed one of the handful of applications that received no funding whatsoever, a proposal by a group called the Metropolitan Center for Assault Prevention for $147,000 to fund child abuse prevention programs.
The nonfunding of the center offers an illustration of the behind-the-scenes consultation that may inform who gets or does not get a grant.
The center, which the county had funded in previous years, "got zero this time because folks made phone calls telling people not to vote for" it, Praisner said.
Silverman said the center's founder, Joanne Levin, who parted ways with the organization last year, called him twice, "both times to let me know she was not associated with [the center] anymore." He said she offered no advice as to whether the county should continue funding the group.
Levin said she has spoken to Silverman since leaving the center but not to other council members. She also said people associated with Silverman's undeclared campaign for county executive have called to ask her to volunteer, an offer she has declined.
Interages lists three former county elected officials on its advisory council: former council members Blair G. Ewing and Gail Ewing and former county executive Sidney Kramer. "We are all aware if a former colleague is on an advisory board, and they serve a purpose for these organizations," Silverman said, adding that none of the Interages advisers lobbied him to fund the group.
He rejects "the suggestion that there was no process" and the "implication that this is just about politics." He stresses the worthwhile work being performed by the community groups and his role in funding them. "As an elected official, I should retain my right to make my own decisions about what I think is in the best interests of community residents," rather than delegating that responsibility to an outside panel.
Some of the groups funded this year help immigrants, disabled people and disadvantaged young people. Others will use county funds to deliver meals, provide security at a major athletic event and train child-care workers.
Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) also defends the council's support of such organizations: "They're almost operating as an arm of the government."