April 30 2009 12:00 AM

The Lansing city budget is missing subsidies for local nonprofits, leaving some wondering how much they’ll get.

Area nonprofits are again in a holding pattern this year to find out how much money they can count on from the City of Lansing. The figures were not included in Mayor Virg Bernero’s 2009-10 proposed budget released last month.

An account-level detail budget, released to the Council the first week of April and to City Pulse after a Freedom of information Act request, breaks down each departments budget line by line. But the Human Relations and Community Services Department, headed by Dr. Joan Jackson-Johnson, which provides funds to nonprofits, is missing exactly how much each nonprofit will get.

The city is required by ordinance to set aside 1.25 percent of the general fund budget to community services. In his first budget three years ago, Bernero recommended a reduction in that appropriation from $1.3 million to $600,000. Finance Director Jerry Ambrose said that recommendation — ultimately rejected by the Council and not vetoed by the mayor — was made while trying eliminate an $11 million deficit.

"It was not a proposal to eliminate the ordinance or any statement to not recognize the importance of these groups," he said.

Since then, the Bernero administration has implemented a new system in which it suggests a lump sum — including line items denoting how much organizations received in the past two years — and later divides the money among the community groups.

Ambrose said the notion that the budget is incomplete is "not correct." He anticipates the blank spots will be replaced with dollar figures before Jackson’s department presents its individual budget to Council.

He said this method of dividing the pot later in the game is a result of not having completed those allocations before the budget is due to Council.

The administration has proposed a total funding pool of $1.48 million for fiscal year 2010, a decrease of over $95,000, despite a $3 million increase in total general fund revenue. Ambrose speculated last years funding was higher because it may have included funding not spent in prior years. He also said he didnt expect the difference to be spread across the board.

Yet community services groups are waiting to receive an invitation to renew their funding.

"We know that anytime now well get a telephone call or letter to schedule a meeting to talk about services and funding for the next year," Peggy Vaughn-Layne, executive director of NorthWest Initiative, said.

Her organization received $20,000 last year and is hoping to be renewed. She said the process to "renew" funding involves laying out deliverables for the upcoming year and making a request for a certain amount of money. She added that she typically is contacted by the city in April or May (the administration unveiled its budget at the end of March) and sends in the necessary documentation and waits for word on the final amount to be disbursed.

So, why not complete those allocations earlier?

Ambrose says that with several weeks until Council votes on the budget, theres plenty of time for community service groups to make their case for funding.

"We present the information in what we believe is a timely manner," he said.

Jackson Johnson says she’ll start notifying groups on Thursday that they will be funded.

But, some nonprofits are feeling the pinch of the economy (as one executive director said, "Were broke") and several state and federal foundations have already slashed grants to these same community groups.

Without even a ballpark figure to put in their budgets, most are left waiting until the final budget is approved by Council to learn what their actual subsidy will be. And thats only if Council approves the budget on the first attempt.

While they wait, some community groups are wondering exactly how that pot is divvied up. The Tri-County Office on Aging, which counts Second Ward Councilwoman Sandy Allen as a board member (it is one of many groups on which Council members serve), received $79,000 from the HRCS "discretionary fund" in addition to $15,000 for the Tri-County "aging consortium." The Red Cross got $25,000 last fiscal year. The Veterans of America homeless program got $125,000, while the Cristo Rey Community Center got just over $34,000 for its "diversion" program and an additional $49,000 marked for its community center. The Allen Neighborhood Center received $14,000 in last years budget.

The final funding decisions, Ambrose said, are left to the mayor, who will take into account Jackson- Johnsons recommendations. He expects that groups not delivering on their promises would see a reduction in funding.

Jackson-Johnson said funding "now will be geared more now toward basic needs — keeping people in their homes." The decline in available dollars allocated to the program is also an issue, she said, leading the mayor to "have (the department) look at how to get the most bang for its buck," which will include a hard look at the performance of each group.

The department will seek to fund more services, less "bricks and mortar." And, perhaps convince some agencies to merge.

Still, for executive directors like Vaughn-Payne, it’s a waiting game. She says she usually doesnt find out until the fiscal year begins in July how much funding her organization can count on.

"If we werent going to receive it, it would surely impact what we do," she said.

The South Side Community Development Association, led by At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, received $14,000 in funding last fiscal year.

"We were funded before I was on Council," Dunbar said, adding the city funds are used for communication and outreach and other administrative costs. "None of that money goes to my salary."

Salary figures provided in the South Lansing Community Development Associations Internal Revenue Service form 990 show that in 2005, $40,665 was paid to "independent contractors." The following year, $53,294 was paid out in "salaries, other compensation and employee benefits."

While not tipping its hand to show what may be heading to any group — beyond the hope that the funding levels in previous years stay steady — the city
is also encouraging community service organizations to diversify their
funding base and combine operations with other local groups to avoid
offering duplicative services.

At-Large Councilwoman Carol
Wood, who is running for mayor, said leaving the funding unassigned
until the "last minute" has been standard practice under the Bernero
administration. In addition to the potential problems the practice
causes for nonprofits, the Council, she says, is presented with an
"incomplete" budget.

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