The “back to basics” budget Tacoma City Council passed last week clamped down on non-core spending and left some nonprofits facing the question of how they will fun their programs. More than 100 programs sought funding that totaled about $12 million in request for their social services, but only 54 received any funding at all from the $7 million available. A hearing on the recommendations from the city’s Human Services Commission that vets the requests is set for Dec. 18, with several programs expected to throw “hail Mary” requests to the council after not receiving thumbs up for funding. “I’m expecting all sorts of public agencies to be coming out of the woodwork,” Councilmember Lauren Walker said. Likely to come to the podium will be someone from Metro Parks, which submitted nine funding requests of a combined $2 million. None received recommendations in this first cycle of being lumped into a “competitive” grant system rather than receiving earmarked funding from the city for programs.
Metro Parks’ Sparx after-school program in the middle schools, for example, is set to end when children return to school after the holiday break unless funding is found to at least pay for a “soft landing” for the program to operate through the end of the year. Parks and school officials are in talks to come up with about $150,000 to fund the program through June, and there is a full-court press to find city dollars as well since the program was started as a pet project by the city. “We created it,” Councilmember Marty Campbell said. “I feel we have the responsibility to put it to bed responsibly. This provides the program with a soft landing.” In reviewing applications, the commission and two community experts focused on three priority areas: increasing employability and self-sufficiency for adults, meeting the basic needs of residents, and preparing children for success. Based on those criteria, recreational programs ranked lower than those that provide wellness services and employment training. Sparx got a score of just 60 out of a possible 100.
There is some wiggle room on funding, however. The council could override the recommendations and add or remove funding or change amounts. The council could also dip into its reserves, but those “rainy day funds” are already lower than ideal. “I really want to be very protective of our reserves,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “They are so very low for an organization this size.” Regardless of the grant amount or the program itself, she said, any agency seeking city dollars knows the process and knows the core services they need to provide to receive money. Funding programs that rank low on those priorities, especially when reserve dollars are at stake, skirts the system. “There is a reason we have this process,” she said. “And no one wants to say no to kids.”
Parks officials are continuing talks with school and city officials to keep the program going through the end of the school year as well as reviewing the applications they submitted to find ways to articulate the activities in terms of the city’s guiding principles. “It’s a challenge,” Metro Parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson said, noting that parks are seen as fun activities rather than also providing quality of life, health improvements and life skills, particularly to disabled people who would otherwise be isolated. The park system’s summer lunch program is another example. While the program is federally subsidized because it targets low-income neighborhoods, it does not track whom it serves. “We don’t ask a kid ‘hey, are your parents poor?’” she said, noting that the needs of the neighborhoods have been recognized by the federal government through the subsidies, but not fully explained in the application. A roster of the programs that sought city dollars, the amount they received and the commission’s comments about each program is available in the online version of this story.