Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak held a press conference in his office on Tuesday to deliver an $80 million, decade-long plan for community engagement that’s supposed to pick up where the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) leaves off after it ends next year. Also in the plan is a provision to pay out $10 million yearly to reduce the city’s Target Center debt.
Public comment on the Framework for the Future can be made at a hearing at 5 p.m. August 20 in the City Council chambers, and can also be submitted until Sept. 11 to Committee Clerk Anissa Hollingshead at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Council Committee Clerk, 350 South 5th Street, Room 304, Minneapolis, MN 55415.
NRP, originally set up to last 20 years, has afforded all kinds of neighborhood improvements, including everything from streetscape enhancements to extra cops, as dictated by residents’ priorities, and some proponents say its overhauling is unwarranted. Calling the plan a power grab, a coalition of more than 30 neighborhood groups, neighbors4nrp, has developed a counter proposal that would keep NRP as a buffer from the city. What kind of an influence their just-out proposal might have on the City Council, which will soon weigh in on the mayor’s plan, is unclear at this point.
The mayor’s plan is the outgrowth of the “Framework for the Future” discussions that have been ongoing between city officials and community members to find a way to extend community involvement as NRP funding dwindles (2001 legislative changes are to blame for that, according to city information. Go here for more information on the process, time-line and background.). Most significantly, Rybak is proposing establishing a new department to handle community engagement, which he says will bring the city and neighborhoods closer together. The basis for that, the mayor says, is that systemic change is needed. “One of the goals of NRP was to reinvent the way the city delivered services. That is yet to be realized. Working directly with the city, we can fulfill that vision,” the mayor said. “This department will help the city be more responsive [to neighborhoods].”
But critics of the plan point to NRP as a model system, as evidenced by comments from the likes of Archon Fung, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who wrote in a March 2007 letter to state legislator Ann Lenczewski: “So far as I know, the program is the most ambitious of its kind in any large or medium sized American city… [O]nly in Minneapolis do those citizens receive such substantial funds to translate their discussions and plans into realities.”
Similarly, Steve Raukar, chair of Minnesota’s St. Louis County Board penned to NRP executive director Bob Miller in 2004: “In an age when so many people have become disillusioned with government, your program clearly demonstrates that empowering people into meaningful opportunities in their own neighborhoods can have a tremendously transformative effect.”
A new community engagement system
Rybak’s proposed Department of Neighborhood and Community Relations, to be housed within the City Coordinator’s Office, aims to “support neighborhood organizations, strengthen resident involvement in neighborhood and community organizations and coordinate activities between the City and neighborhood and community organizations,” according to the plan. Rybak said that the new department would ensure that neighborhood organizations would be “defined as part of the core infrastructure, the backbone,” for community engagement. “We needed to find a way to sustain it in the long-term with a more direct relationship with the city… We need to break down the barriers,” he said.
According to the plan, the new department will provide oversight of neighborhood groups, along with administrative and technical support, with an end goal of growing groups’ capacities and developing leadership. Another key part of the plan is the formation of an advisory board to be composed of Minneapolis residents. (Of those panelists, half would be City Council appointees while the rest would be nominated by neighborhoods.)
Rybak emphasized that neighborhood organizations need to count on funding for both emerging and future needs while it should reflect greater diversity. To do so, Multicultural Outreach Services will relocate from the civil rights department to the new department, as will the Intergovernmental Relations’ initiative Heading Home Hennepin. Rybak’s proposal allocates $8 million each year to the city’s 72 neighborhood groups over the next decade, to be split 90/10 for administration and discretionary uses. It’s hard to gauge how that funding compares with current levels because many of them leverage that money for additional grants. (From NRP, they have received around $3 million annually. One thing to note here, NRP advocates say, is that administration for program needs are well over that.) What has been dubbed a “neighborhood investment fund” and “community innovation fund” will support neighborhoods’ operating and programmatic costs and other neighborhood-identified priorities, according to the plan. Before that kicks in, $1 million would come from the city’s general fund for two years.
The new department’s funding is from tax increments, similar to NRP. During this year’s legislative session, a bill was approved to reauthorize tax-increment districts to relieve the city’s Target Center debt and aid neighborhood revitalization. (Removal of the word “program” from the phrase “neighborhood revitalization” has been criticized because it doesn’t specifically profit NRP, while some people point out that legal stipulations could preclude it from being used outside of the downtown tax increment districts.)
At Tuesday’s press conference, City Council member Robert Lilligren, who chaired the Framework workgroup of city officials and NRP staffers, added that many open questions remain, especially over multijurisdictional cooperation, the future of the NRP Policy Board and potential legislative changes. City Council member Betsy Hodges, who served on the plan’s work group, later chimed in, “It focuses attention of city hall policymakers and staff, making sure our relationship with neighbors is close, productive and positive. The new department will have NRP as one of the programs inside the department, but it won’t be the only function. It will serve as a place where neighbors can interact with the city on a number of issues.”
Case for the opposition
NRP executive director Bob Miller opposes the city plan: “The thing that distinguishes NRP is the level of control,” he said. “We’re talking about real empowerment… [Residents] are treated more as equals in the discussion,” which is something he warns is bound to be lost in translation. “The danger of it being a city program is that now the direction is that you get support if you play along. But what happens if a neighbor doesn’t like the way the city wants to deal with it? There’s always going to be fear that the funding will be cut off if they become too outspoken.” Also of concern, he points out, is its reliance on temporary tax-increment financing: if it’s a basic city service, as some city officials say, then it should be funded out of the general fund. What happens to the fund when the tax increment financing dries up?
Debra Evans, a Linden Hills resident, said she’s not sure why the city needs to reinvent the system. “Nobody has explained exactly what the city plan is improving,” she said, adding that the city’s decisive actions prior to collecting community comments shows that, “No attention has been paid to the community’s feedback.”
She and other activists have formulated an alternative proposal [pdf] to preserve NRP and address their concerns about the city plan’s shortcomings. They’re worried that its governance be multijurisdictional, that financial support be consistent (with excess money go to cover a shortfall) and the program independent from the city. A major difference is that $10 million should continue to support NRP each year, beyond its sunset date, on top of the $3 million annually from the general fund for what should be renamed “resident empowerment organizations,” the proposal states.
Dewayne Townsend, a resident of the Cooper neighborhood and vice chair of the Longfellow Community Council, said the city plan is a throwback to the pre-NRP days. “It makes neighborhoods subject to the whims of the City Council, which is a recipe for disaster.” The city plan is impacted by annual budget changes while their proposal “has a fixed amount of money for a longer period,” he said.
The group doesn’t mind having a resident advisory board or a new city department to improve relations between the city and residents. But they believe the NRP director should report to the NRP governing board, not the city department, while the NRP Policy Board should be revamped with the emphasis on making it multi-jurisdictional. Other ideas are to form a Community Engagement Commission (similar to the city’s resident advisory board) and assemble teams of city staffers to facilitate better community interaction.
Cheryl Luger, who lives in Nokomis East/Minnehaha, echoed Townsend’s and Evans’ thoughts. “There’s a lot of support to keep the structure like this.” Of the city plan, she remarked, “Everything is a guesstimate. It’s a grand experiment with nothing behind it.”
Next in this process, the City Council will confer over the mayor’s plan while also accepting community feedback. The City Council’s target date for making decisions about what the plan will be is Sept. 12, though that is subject to change. There’ll be a public meeting on Aug. 20 at 5 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall. Written comments will be accepted through Sept. 11.