NRP post-2009: $3 million city-controlled?

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NRP lite? Or NRP not at all?

That’s the question some neighbors are asking, after a six-member task force (including four Minneapolis city council members) recently released a report titled “Framework for the Future: Options for the focus, funding and governance of NRP Program and Action Plan activities after 2009.”

The report calls for the city to spend $3 million a year on neighborhood revitalization projects, after the original Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) ends its 20-year run in 2009. Of that, $2 million goes into a “Neighborhood Investment Fund” that has two components. Some of the money might be allocated directly to the neighborhoods, based on a funding formula (yet to be devised). Neighborhoods might have to compete for another amount (as yet undetermined).

The remaining $1 million will go to city staffers working in a new community participation division. The staff and director of the division will report to the city coordinator.

The meetings

Northeast residents can hear council members and NRP executive director Robert Miller discuss the Framework for the Future at a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 23 at East Side Neighborhood Services, 17th Avenue and 2nd St. NE, 7-8:30 p.m.

The Northeast meeting is one of five city meetings scheduled between Jan. 22 and Feb. 4; the others are in Southeast, South, North and downtown Minneapolis. A comment period ends March 17 and those comments will be presented to the city council Committee of the Whole, tentatively scheduled for April 3.

The meeting schedule and the report are online at the city’s website, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/communications/NRPWrkGrpInfoSessions.asp. (When the page opens, click on “Framework for the Future” in the first paragraph).

What does it mean?

Many neighborhood groups have been paying close attention to the city’s plans, now that NRP is ending. (At its inception, the state approved the revolutionary $20 million-a-year-for-20-years NRP program and brought in funding partners including Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. NRP’s goal was to revitalize the city through empowering residents. It guaranteed yearly funding to neighborhood groups, and for the most part let the groups decide how to spend the money.)

Some people say they aren’t happy that the NRP staff might no longer be autonomous. They think the city should have tried harder to forge partnerships and keep the program going in its original form, which they credit with—among other things—helping them renew local housing stock, upgrade parks and schools, and set up revolving home fixup loan programs for residents.

City officials, on the other hand, say they’re doing the best they can to keep the program going, but funds are limited and they will need help from the state and other partners. They also say that since the city is going to be the sole funder in the beginning, it should control the NRP staff.

Council members’ views

City Council President Bar-bara Johnson served on the Framework task force (along with council members Paul Ostrow, Betsy Hodges, and Robert Lilligren, NRP Director Robert Miler and Mayoral Policy Aide Cara Letofsky).

“NRP is not in its final death throes,” she said, “but a number of the solutions for continuing funding for NRP will require legislative funding. At the city, we don’t have the ability or capacity to provide for an ongoing future $3 million.”

When asked about the short time frame (45 days) for community comment on the Framework for the Future plan, she said, “We have to move forward. We want input but we have narrowed down the possibilities of ongoing funding for programs. People are telling us that some neighborhoods are running out of Phase 2 money.

“We want to encourage neighborhood associations to work together,” Johnson added. “We may develop some incentives to work together.” As to the NRP staff reporting to the city coordinator instead of being independent, she said, “We think that if we are the funding source over the next phase of the program we should have a closer relationship with NRP. There have been some problems, some issues regarding some neighborhoods’ spending.”

NRP did help, Johnson said. “People want to see the plan continue and so does the council. But we’ve raised property taxes 8 percent every year for the last five years. We have a duty as a council to explain where we’re spending those dollars and how tight the finances are. We don’t have $10 million lying around every year for the next 10 years; if we did, then we’d have to raise property taxes 16 percent. We don’t have all the answers right now. That’s what we’re working on.”

Ostrow said, “We’re making a $3 million leap of faith. That’s not an easy amount of money to come by. It will take creativity and trade offs. We have to have support in the private sector and the legislature.” Although the time frame for public comment might seem short to some, Ostrow said, “We haven’t been doing this in a vacuum. There have been a lot of public forums about NRP. January 23 will not be the last opportunity to talk about this.”

Ostrow said that going to the legislature in 2008 might be “premature.” In order to provide “sufficient time for the full process,” he added, “we may not be ready until 2009.” And it might not be such an easy chore, Ostrow said. “Minneapolis is the only city with NRP, so it might be harder to convince legislators to help.”

Neighbors’ views

Jeff Strand, who lives in North Minneapolis’ Shingle Creek neighborhood, is an NRP Policy Board member. He said he thinks that the Framework for the Future is a “positive first step.” Having the city recognize that neighborhoods need a baseline of financial support is vital, he added. “A lot will depend on feedback to the mayor and council, and what they decide to do this spring, along with the NRP policy board and the state legislature. The big question is the discretionary funding: what level will it be, and how will it all be achieved?”

Kevin Reich, executive director of Holland Neighborhood Association in Northeast, is much less upbeat about the city’s intentions. The changes are significant, he said. In the past, with city oversight and an independent policy board, “We had free reign to bring creativity into our own back yard, to do things that were unique and deeply meaningful to the community. Under the current commitment—to the extent you can nail down any financial commitment—the city is saying ‘Anything is better than nothing.’ We keep hearing that times are tough, but the more they say that, the more I’m convinced they should invest in community-based strategies. We’re the ones who get the biggest bang for our buck.

“In the 1980s, Minneapolis seemed to want to strike a balance and welcome the energy and resources of the community. The less you do that, the more you go the way of typical municipal investment. I see a movement toward consolidating and centralizing. Maybe that’s the way to run a city, but I think Minneapolis did something miraculous in the 1980s with a unique and internationally awarded program that stemmed the tide and turned neighborhoods around.

“Holland was a good example of that,” Reich added. “We had all the stressors and urban challenges, including abandoned polluted sites and low income households. It was NRP exclusively that was the vehicle for change; it gave us a stable funding source and the resources of the NRP office. If we lose that office, by the way, we lose an amazing support mechanism. That tiny office was able to serve 60-plus neighborhood associations. I’d challenge any other city office to serve that many citizens.”

Reich said he thinks that city officials deliberately made the comment period short. “They know it will be widely unpopular. Their attitude is, ‘let’s get this done.’ But there is no reason to rush it. The more time they give us, the more we can articulate and come together. The city staff doesn’t own the city. Elected officials are there to represent us, not be our uber-managers. This should be under the scrutiny of a robust citizen dialogue.

“NRP is not some old dog you take out behind the shed and shoot. It’s not Ol’ Yeller,” he added. “This is something created by policy makers. The community has been talking about this a lot. We’ve seen too much to just let this go.”

Linden Hills (South Minneapolis) neighborhood resident Debbie Evans is an at-large member of the NRP policy board. She too expressed doubts about the city’s plan, saying, “There are a couple of council members who always say, ‘Do you want police, fire, public works or NRP?’ But NRP has never been in competition with the money for police, fire, and public works. Now, however, it will be. Without long term secured discretionary funding, we will go back to the early 1980s and it will be horrible.”

Neighborhoods have been able to leverage over a billion dollars in additional dollars for projects because they’ve had NRP funds, Evans added. “The city says we don’t need to go to the legislature this year, but if they wait, some of these neighborhoods will be gone.”

Other officials’ views

State Representative Joe Mullery, a North Side resident and past chair of the NRP Policy Board, agrees with that. “If they want to do something to get the legislature to renew NRP, it should be done this year,” he said. The proposed Framework for the Future, however, troubles him. “I don’t see how you can call it NRP; that was a particular thing under the state statute. It was far-sighted and it really emowered the grass roots people. Now we’re going back to saying the neighborhoods can give input to the city, but they won’t be empowered to spend the money themselves. Instead of a separate board and staff it will be city staff running it. If the mayor says he needs something a certain way, staff won’t be telling him that’s not the way to go. Neighborhood groups will lose the ability to get a lot of information that the city may not be gung ho to give them.”

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the future situation “is not too pretty.” The notion that NRP ought to be rolled into a city office is a bad idea, he added, and “antithetical to the basic idea of NRP,” which was to get resources out to the neighborhoods.

“People felt that the priorities of downtown weren’t helping neighborhoods enough,” McLaughlin added.

“When I ran for mayor [in the 2005 election], I predicted that the mayor [R.T. Rybak] would kill it off. Neighbors ought to be unhappy about this. They better rise up and fight this. For the current leadership at city hall, this is not their deal. What they talk about as saving NRP is nonsense.”

McLaughlin said he has suggested asking the legislature to continue the extension on tax increment financing districts, or making adjustments to local government aid funds “so we can have some sort of resources to devote to NRP. Maybe we can look at including first ring suburbs in NRP; they suffer from the same challenges as the city, and they don’t have neighborhood groups yet. That’s one of the strengths of NRP,” McLaughlin said.

Another Hennepin County Commissioner, Mark Stenglein, takes an opposite view. NRP funding took away third of the county’s tax base, and he said the county will be glad to get the money back. When asked if the county will seek a future role in NRP, he said, “If we’re not putting any money into it, why would we be at the table? We won’t have a vested interest in it anymore. Before, they were taking part of our tax money through the common project. Things are different now. The 20 years have expired. I think it’s time for city to move on.

“NRP regenerated a lot of old housing stock but the jury is out. We’ll never know if that would have happened if the money had been left in the city’s control,” Stenglein added.

“My biggest criticism of NRP is that it is a homogeneous group controlling the money, pretty much the same people all the time. Being inclusive is hard to do. The strongest personalities take over in these neighborhood groups and they’re not trained city planners. Three million divided between 80 neighborhoods will give them enough money to pay rent and have computers. That’s enough. You have to ask these people, ‘Why do you elect a council member? What are they supposed to do?’ We have 13 of them. That’s a big number for a city of this size.”

Long-time NRP director Bob Miller, who said he has no illusions about keeping his job once the change takes place, said that discussions have moved away from neighborhood empowerment. “This is a massive step backwards. The city is emphasizing giving out information. They want people to come to meetings and form focus groups. There’s no indication that that has any impact.

“Nobody understands enough about the city’s finances to say, ‘there are other resources that could be utilized. There are ways to do this, if you want to do it,’” Miller added. “Neither the council members nor city staff has said, ‘Why don’t we set up a group to figure out how to do it?’ They’ve always said, ‘Why should we do it?’ This isn’t about the money. Neighborhoods get less than seven tenths of one percent of the city budget through NRP. This is about power and control.”

Miller added, “It all comes down to what you see as the role of government and what you see as the role of residents. Think of all the home improvement projects, the economic development projects, the social service projects, and the kinds of efforts we’ve seen to build a sense of community in this city. How many people knew they lived in a neighborhood before NRP came along? There are more people involved than ever before. How many of them will come to meetings in the future, if all they have to do is talk about the meetings themselves? Why should they organize? To do what? Implement city controlled projects, with city controlled funds?

“People have built levels of commitment, relationships and pride,” Miller said. “NRP gave people a connection to a small area, a sense of place and a sense of connection. Instead of looking at eliminating that kind of connection you should be enhancing it. Make neighborhoods mean more, and reward that participation.”

Input on the Framework For the Future can be sent by e-mail to community.engagement@ci. minneapolis.mn.us, by mail to Jennifer Lastoka, Community Engagement Coordinator, 350 S. 5th St. Room 301-M City Hall, Minneapolis, MN 55415, or by fax, 612-673-2011, attention Jennifer Lastoka. For information on the report or meetings, call Lastoka at 612-673-3163. Ostrow’s number is 612-673-2201. Johnson’s number is 612-673-2204.

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