Less than four months after putting a new City Council-approved Strong Neighborhoods business plan into action, staff cuts and uncertain funding will force the neighborhood improvement program into another reorganization that will test its effectiveness.Staff members were told on Friday, April 29, that 12 of the remaining 16 positions will be cut or transferred out of Strong Neighborhood, leaving 4.75 left in the program that inwas staffed by 66, and had 35 staff members about 18 months ago.
On Monday, May 2, the proposedbudget will be released shedding more light on future funding for neighborhood services.
“I’m very sad about the turn this has taken,” said Strong Neighborhoods director Kip Harkness, who had to deliver the news to his staff members. “And it’s going to be difficult to see what the future is for Strong Neighborhoods.”
Deep staff cuts, which city officials say is unavoidable to help close a $115 million deficit, also raises questions in the minds of volunteers about the city’s commitment to keep the program going.
“I don’t think it’s going to last,” said Carlos Da Silva, a Neighborhood Action Coalition member from the Strong Neighborhoods West Evergreen Area. “You take away staff and you take away all the funding, and what’s left? People in the neighborhoods are being asked to work even harder. You’re not going to get the volunteers.”
Said Phil Hood, chair of the newly revitalized Delmas Park Neighborhood Action Coalition, “People have to be empowered to solve their own problems because the city isn’t going to be there.”
While the mission of Strong Neighborhoods program was always to train residents to be leaders who could manage projects at a grass-roots level, the city and the agency were key to making significant changes and investment in neighborhood projects and organization. Staff members and field workers provided a vital connection to City Hall.“Hopefully, they made us stronger,” said Rita Torres, a member of the Spartan Keyes Neighborhood Action Coalition, who has been with the program for 10 years. “But it certainly helped to know there was access to resources and cutting red tape.”
Launched by then Mayor Ron Gonzales, the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative created a new way of doing business with residents. Committees of residents and other stakeholders in 19 areas considered legally blighted and long-neglected worked with city and redevelopment agency staff members to assess what their neighborhoods needed to become cleaner, safer and equitable to neighborhoods that had received more attention over the years.
The Neighborhood Advisory Committees now dubbed Neighborhood Action Coalitions, developed lists of the Top 10 priority projects. During the past 10 years, $104 million in agency funds and $32 million in city funds were invested in neighborhood projects that included parks, community centers, streetlights, sidewalks and activities for youth.
As funding diminished and large projects were completed, the focus turned to leadership training and providing tools and support so that neighborhoods groups could become more self-reliant. The new business plan emerged as a way to continue the program with fewer staff members and an emphasis on 13 neighborhoods that needed the most help.Staff who worked closely with residents worry about the program’s ability to continue to help these areas. They can be resilient for a while, said Team Manager Paul Pereira, but they are areas with high rates of turnover.
“Within three years, the majority of these neighborhood focus areas could be made up of new residents, with a new set of challenges and a new need to orient the community on how to work with their local government and become engaged,” he said. ” Without that, people will have less trust toward their neighbors, their community, and their government. Without that trust, our neighborhoods will start to slide backward much faster.”
Said Harkness, “We know that what we have done to refocus works, and it works without capitol dollars. We are having to cut staff just at the moment we’re as effective as we’ve ever been. The work we’re doing has a phenomenal return on investment. My frustration is that that’s not being recognized.”
As the business plan was moving forward, a new resident leaders’ group, Coalition of Neighborhood Action Coalitions, formed to support the plan’s goals and provide a strong voice for neighborhood issues. City staff members have provided guidance and resources for this group as well.
“The question,” he added, “goes back to what is the city wiling to do if Strong Neighborhoods goes away or gets severely reduced?”
In response to a question at the District 5 Community Budget Meeting on April 11, Deputy City Manager Norberto Duenas gave a general commitment to Strong Neighborhoods without providing details.
“Our goal is to continue that program,“ he said. “It will be a smaller program but we’re committed to keep it going. We will continue to keep SNI alive and connect with other funding sources. We will continue to work on that.”
But what that means in the short-term has yet to be disclosed to residents. Still, there is optimism in neighborhoods that have been transformed.
“This can’t be the end,” said Joan Rivas Cosby of the Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace Area. “We can’t have done all this work for the last 10 or 11 years to let it go up in smoke. We just need to brace ourselves for the worst and figure out where we go from here.”