For longer than anyone can remember the city council has given grants to local organizations. “It’s always been. It’s not like someone on the council dreamed it up,” said former Mayor Mary Herron, who served on the council from 1979 to 1988.
Amounts have changed over the years. “When things were tight there was less money to give out. That was especially true after Prop 13 passed,” she added. But even in those lean days no one suggested abolishing the program. “I always saw it was a way to support community involvement.” In the past few years city coffers have been flush. Last year grants to local groups topped $1.3 million, with individual groups receiving anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands.
The groups that receive money represent a wide spectrum of community interest. Fourth of July Committee, SAFE, the Coronado Chamber of Commerce, Lamb’s Players, the Community Band, Miss Coronado, the Navy League Sea Cadet Program are among the perennial recipients. In recent years the Coronado Island Film Festival and Musica Vitale received funding. In total this last year, the city doled out $1.3 million to 18 organizations.
In the past few years there have been calls for accountability and oversight. “There is no consistency in how the applications are submitted and no accountability in how the money is spent,” Marion Scire said. Founder and CEO of Classics for Kids, Scire has 20 years’ experience in writing and closing out grants. She has been funded by government entities at the local, state and federal level. Last year she compared organizations’ financial statements and their 990 tax forms. Some numbers did not match.
Another critic, Mayor Richard Bailey, pointed out that, “Some of the financial statements are the same down to the dollar, even the utility costs were claimed to be the same. I suppose it is possible all of their costs were identical year after year, but I have a hard time believing that. If the application was simply copied and pasted from a prior year, then that is not fair to taxpayers, that’s not fair to the community and it shouldn’t be tolerated.”
While community grants were not central to his mayoral campaign, Bailey has long championed reforming the system. “We need a process with clear objectives, where everyone knows what is expected,” Bailey said.
This year steps have been taken to address concerns raised by Scire and Bailey. Applicants must include their 990 tax form and a copy of their IRS 501(c)(3) Determination Letter to prove their tax exempt status. Applicants also have to specify how much the city is contributing to the overall budget.
Unlike past years, grant requests will not be considered until the final budget is approved. In past years, both were approved at the same meeting. This gave the council “wiggle room” to increase the line item in the budget to accommodate a particular group’s request.
For example, in 2015, the council increased the line item for community grants by some $300 to help the school district hire counselors. Bailey supported the request, even though he thought the practice was fiscally imprudent. “By adopting the final budget first, we are tying ourselves down to that number. It will make it easier for us to hold that line. That’s my number one reason for doing it,” he said.
At the May 9 budget workshop, Bailey wants the council to establish policy objectives, and evaluate applicants in light of those objectives.
“We need to be looking at everything through the lens of our policy objectives, not just simply looking at who has received funding in the past and repeating the same process over and over.”
For the first time in decades, every applicant, no matter if they’re asking for the same amount or a dollar, will be asked to make a presentation.
The practice began in 1992. It was done for the convenience of the council. “We had three days’ worth of presentations and wound up rubber stamping them all,” former Mayor Tom Smisek said.
Just because a group asks for the same amount, doesn’t mean they are trying to work the system. Coronado MainStreet is one of the organizations that asks for the same amount year after year. “It’s what the board feels we need,” said its executive director Rita Sarich. MainStreet actively fundraises in the community. Sarich is pleased with the updated application. “It’s the norm for nonprofits and I think it will make the process better for everyone.”
Bringing Coronado’s grant making in line with standard practices is at the heart of what critics want to achieve.
“One of the beautiful things about Coronado is that in many ways it is still a small town, that makes it easier to help people out simply on a handshake,” Bailey said.
“In 2017 we’re not a small town financially. Our operating budget is well over $50 million dollars now. Community grants make up roughly 2% of our budget. We can’t be giving out funds based on a handshake and a general understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. It simply would not be good governance,” Bailey said.