For years, how local government decided which private social services agencies to fund was something of a black box.
It was never quite clear why some groups were in and some were out. There didn't seem to be a clear link between ongoing funding and results.
This approach changed when the recession forced cuts in all parts of the budget, including these grants.
The city began working to create a process that's more fair, transparent and accountable. Funding emphasis shifted from agency general operations to supporting specific, measurable projects.
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Now in its third year, this approach has generally been a success. It creates a more open and accountable system for spending scant money on serious needs.
These are tough decisions and the system will inevitably be criticized and need finer tuning. But any temptation to scuttle it and return to the old ways must be set aside.
Most people support using tax dollars to help people — whether to find housing, beat addictions or learn a trade — but they want, and deserve, to know the money is spent carefully and producing results.
Under the new system, an application and rating system is developed each fall and explained in a meeting to interested agencies. Early the following year they submit project applications, including a budget and metrics to measure results.
Using the rating system, applications are reviewed and ranked, and using those rankings the mayor and the council decide what to fund and at what levels.
Agencies that get funds report results every three months and, if they reapply, their track record counts in the ranking.
This year, 73 applications (up from about 50 last year) came in requesting $6.3 million. The first review led to recommendations to fund 21 agencies for about $2.3 million.
Mayor Jim Gray found money in his budget to add the next two agencies in the rankings. The council subcommittee in turn added 10 agencies — not strictly in order of the rankings — and increased funding for two. The total now stands at 33 projects for about $3.1 million, about one percent of the city budget.
The challenges, apparent Tuesday when the council subcommittee made its recommendations, are twofold: ranking social services projects will always be an inexact science; and the needs exceed available funds.
Council member Jennifer Scutchfield, who served on the committee that ranked the projects, rightly worried that taking them out of order for funding would send the message that, "if you complain the most it seems like you're going to get more."
Council member Chris Ford, who presented the budget group's recommendations, acknowledged, "we recognize that we're not dealing with a perfect process."
The group offered suggestions for tweaking the process, including grouping applications by category and size, so agencies with similar missions and structures would be compared to each other.
This system can be improved, but competition among worthy agencies addressing critical social needs will always end in hard choices.