Commissioner begins politicking for Just Food funding; a look at amounts that nonprofits receive from city and how those are falling
Some people say the art of politics is compromise. I’ve heard others contend the true art is figuring out a good way to ask for money. If so, Lawrence City Hall is full of art these days. It is budget season, and among the groups seeking city funds are the community’s social service agencies. If history is any guide, they won’t be overly successful.
Even though the total amount of money the city gives to social service agencies is a relatively small portion of the city’s overall budget, it gets outsized attention. The funding requests are full of good causes, and the social service agencies have boards full of community leaders who know how to twist the arms of city commissioners.
If you have been on Facebook recently, you perhaps have noticed that City Commissioner Matthew Herbert has taken to politicking for a particular social service agency. Herbert has lent his support and his Facebook page to getting city funding for Just Food, the food bank that has seen a whole host of financial problems since its former director — and Lawrence’s former mayor — Jeremy Farmer allegedly improperly paid himself and failed to remit payroll taxes for the nonprofit organization. (Note: The taxes are paid up now.)
Just Food hasn’t received city funding in the past, but it looks like a good bet that the food bank will receive city dollars in 2017. The city’s Social Services Advisory Board is recommending $5,000 in funding for Just Food. Herbert, however, thinks that is too little. He cites statistics that contend the number of people the food bank is serving during its peak months has more than doubled since 2014. Just Food has asked for about $27,000, which primarily would be used to pay utility costs for the food bank facility, which operates a lot of energy-intensive coolers and freezers.
“An organization that feeds nearly 10,000 people in our community each month being told that $5,000 per year is an appropriate funding from the city,” Herbert writes. “Times are very tight this budget season, and there will be some budgetary choices made that keep me up at night, no doubt. It is my hope, and will be my vote, that we do a little better here.”
So, keep an eye on that one. It may turn into a Picasso or it may be judged a velvet Elvis over the mantel, which I’ve been told in no uncertain terms is not art.
But a more interesting discussion to follow would be one about what role City Hall should play in funding social service agencies in the community. I’m not sure that discussion will happen. Usually, commissioners get pretty focused on the individual funding requests and don’t spend much time on the bigger-picture issue.
Perhaps that is why social service funding levels are falling at City Hall. That may surprise some folks. Lawrence is thought of as a pretty socially conscious community. But I’ve watched the amount of money the city sets aside in its budget for social service agencies consistently fall over the years. Now, there is a caveat. (There is always a caveat, just like there’s always a two-for-one sale on velvet Elvises at any respectable flea market.) The city has provided some special funding, like a loan to the Lawrence Community Shelter and other such groups. That money becomes kind of hard to track year to year. What I’m focusing on is the process the city has used for decades, where it asks nonprofit groups to apply for city funds that are paid either through general property taxes or the city’s share of the statewide liquor tax.
In 2007, the city’s general fund budget — that’s the portion paid for through general taxes — included a little more than $640,000 for social service agencies. In the proposed 2017 budget, there’s $515,000 in general fund dollars for social service agencies. That’s a drop of about 20 percent for the decade, or about 2 percent per year.
Now, it should be noted, that liquor has come to the rescue, at least partially. The city has a fund called the Special Alcohol Fund. So do many houses in the Oread neighborhood, but the city’s is different. This one is named as such because it receives its funding from the city’s share of the special state tax charged on liquor. Funding from that source has increased — albeit slightly — in the last decade. Funding levels proposed for the 2017 budget are $666,000, up from about $642,000 in 2007.
When you add the two sources together, social service agencies have seen their funding levels fall by about $100,000 over the decade. When you factor in inflation, the cut is greater.
But has that been a bad move by the city? That depends on whom you talk to. I’ve heard arguments that perhaps the city should focus less on funding individual agencies and focus more on funding initiatives that can change the underlying issues that create some of the underlying societal problems that the agencies are trying to address. In other words, raise income levels so we’ll have less poverty in the community. The city would argue it is trying to do some of that, but it is easier said than done.
On the other side of the coin, I hear arguments that the city needs to provide more social service funding. You can talk about the big picture all you want, but somebody still needs to feed and house the less fortunate. Folks on that side of the argument point out that charitable giving hasn’t exactly picked up the slack. Here’s an interesting statistic on that front: According to old news articles, the United Way fundraising campaign in 2006-2007 brought in $1.63 million. In 2015-2016, it brought in $1.5 million.
For those of you interested more in the here and now, here is a look at proposed funding levels for agencies in the city’s 2017 budget. City commissioners are expected to finalize the amounts in the coming weeks.
From the city’s general fund:
— Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center: $143,970 vs. $153,208 in 2016
— Big Brothers Big Sisters: $17,637 vs. $17,580
— Boys and Girls Club: $115,978 vs. $119,328
— Communities in Schools: $2,290 vs. $2,280
— Douglas County CASA: $21,520 vs. $22,780
— Douglas County Dental Clinic: $15,000 vs. $15,000
— Health Care Access: $23,331 vs. $24,410
— Heartland Medical Clinic: $31,167 vs. $30,000
— Housing and Credit Counseling: $15,650 vs. $15,580
— Just Food: $5,000 vs. $0
— Lawrence Community Food Alliance: $5,748 vs. $6,830
— Salvation Army bus pass program: $2,375 vs. $0
— Salvation Army Pathway to Hope program: $5,083 vs. $0
— Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center: $8,200 vs. $8,200
— Shelter Inc.: $28,575 vs. $29,150
— Success by 6 Coalition: $25,033 vs. $25,050
— Willow Domestic Violence work clothes program: $2,500 vs. $3,640
— Willow Domestic Violence outreach program: $5,500 vs. $5,470
— Van Go. Inc.: $29,460 vs. $31,890
— Warm Hearts: $4,480 vs. $5,470
From the city’s special alcohol fund:
— Ballard Community Services: $16,702 vs. $13,210
— Bert Nash WRAP program: $321,815 vs. $325,000
— Big Brothers Big Sisters: $9,570 vs. $8,710
— Boys and Girls Club: $98,732 vs. $95,710
— DCCCA First Step program: $37,180 vs. $37,180
— DCCCA outpatient program: $93,524 vs. $93,534
— Health Care Access: $6,946 vs. $0
— Hearthstone: $7,000 vs. $7,500
— Heartland Community Health Center: $30,000 vs. $30,000
— Van Go Inc.: $26,273 vs. $26,273
— Willow Domestic Violence Center: $18,618 vs. $17,710
Plans for downtown grocery store at former Borders site hit a snag; Just Food celebrates 5-year anniversary; WOW announces another plan to boost Internet speeds
Forget about the hundreds of zombies that will roam downtown Lawrence on Thursday night. (It is the zombie walk, not Royals fans still comatose from Tuesday’s late game.) The really scary sight in downtown Lawrence is the new Halloween store in the former Borders bookstore at Seventh and New Hampshire streets. It is scaring the stuffing out of people who have hoped that the former Borders building would become home to a much-wanted downtown grocery store.
If you remember, we reported about a month ago that the owners of the Lawrence-based Checkers grocery store were in negotiations to open a full-service grocery store in the Borders location. The Halloween store doesn’t kill that possibility — it is only a temporary, seasonal store — but it is a sign that negotiations for a grocery store aren’t progressing like people had hoped.
“We have made several offers to buy or lease the building, but we can’t seem to come to any common ground,” Jim Lewis, the owner of Checkers, told me. “I’ve told our real estate agent that the ball is basically in (the building’s owners') court.”
In other words, the two sides can’t agree on a price or terms for the building. I certainly had heard that Lewis was most interested in buying the building, but I’ve also heard that the ownership group out of Michigan was more interested in a lease.
Lewis said he hasn’t given up on the idea of a downtown grocery store.
“I’m still optimistic, but I can’t tell you a location at this point,” Lewis said. “But my son and I are committed to making something happen down there.”
Lewis said he’s also not giving up on the possibility of striking a deal for the Borders location.
“We’re not saying no on Borders,” Lewis said. “They just haven’t made a decent proposal, in our opinion.”
Lewis said he has begun to look at other locations, but declined to give details on where those might be. Finding another location in downtown is probably not impossible, but it will be difficult. Lewis said he must have a site that can provide ample parking.
“You’re not going to make it just relying on walk-in traffic,” he said.
I have no idea where Lewis may be looking, but one site that comes to mind is 11th and New Hampshire. Lawrence businessmen Doug Compton and Rand Allen have said they want to redevelop the former Allen Press property. Compton previously has said he wants to build a multistory apartment building with retail on the ground floor. At one point, Compton thought he was close to signing a deal with a national drug store chain — CVS was the likely tenant, I believe — but that was months ago. I’m still hoping to get an update from Compton, but it seems like that project has lost some momentum. Whether a downtown grocery store would work there, I don’t know. The project would have below-ground parking, but whether enough parking could be built to satisfy the needs of apartment residents and a grocery store is unclear to me.
I also think the East Lawrence Warehouse Arts District might be an area to keep an eye on. Lawrence businessman Tony Krsnich has a significant amount of property in the district, and he has talked about drawing businesses that would provide more amenities to the growing number of residents in the district. That area isn’t quite downtown, but perhaps it is close enough to satisfy those wanting a downtown grocery store.
I don’t have a good timeline on when Lewis will make some decisions on this issue, so I’ll just keep an ear out.
As for the Halloween store, it is called Halloween Express, and it looks like it has all things Halloween related. You still have plenty of time to become a zombie for tonight’s zombie walk, or even better, perhaps it can help us prepare for the Royals’ playoff games with the Los Angeles Angels. I’m thinking a voodoo doll of Mike Trout would be helpful.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Zombie costumes won’t be the only reason to dress up in downtown Lawrence on Thursday. The folks at the Douglas County food bank Just Food are celebrating their five-year anniversary with a special dinner and fundraising event at Abe & Jake’s Landing. The event also will be celebrating the life of Just Food founder and former dean of the renowned KU School of Social Welfare Ann Weick. Weick died this summer.
Just Food is run by Lawrence City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer, and he told me that about 26,000 different Douglas County residents will receive food from the organization in 2014. That’s about 25 percent of Douglas County’s entire population.
“There are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks,” Farmer said.
Farmer said about 60 percent of Just Food’s clients are people who make more money than is allowed for food stamps and other such government assistance. He said Thursday's event, which is sold out, is meant in part to help people better understand the people who need help putting food on the table.
“There are a lot of false perceptions out there about people who need some assistance,” Farmer said. “These people a lot of times are working two or three jobs.”
Farmer said the event also is meant to honor the role that Weick had in founding Just Food. Farmer said he’s learned that Weick had the idea of a locally run food bank on her mind for a good 20 years before the opportunity every arose to get the organization started.
“She was an incredibly resilient and calm leader who exercised her leadership for 20 years before her vision became a reality,” Farmer said. “She is our true north. Our true north is to help people get out of the system because that is always what Ann envisioned.”
As part of the event on Thursday evening, Just Food also will announce the winner of its first leadership award, which it has named the Ann Weick Leadership Award.
• This news is just in: WOW has announced additional plans to upgrade Internet speeds in the city. As we recently reported, the cable and telephone provider in Lawrence will start offering Internet download speeds of 110 Mbps in January, which is a little more than double the speed of its fastest Internet packages.
But at the time, WOW officials said they expected to make additional announcements during the course of the next year about service upgrades. Well, this morning the company said “additional investments are now planned for 2015” to support a new tier that will allow for download speeds of 200 Mbps and upload speeds of 15 Mbps. That’s nearly another doubling of Internet download speeds, and about a tripling of upload speeds. The upload speed issue — which refers to how fast you can post files, photos and other such objects onto the internet or file-sharing services — had been a question with WOW’s previous proposal. Currently, upload speeds are limited to 5 Mbps.
The latest announcement from WOW still does not give any information on pricing plans for the programs. The announcements come right before Lawrence city commissioners are scheduled to again discuss whether to give Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband a $1 million loan guarantee and other incentives to start a pilot project in Lawrence to bring gigabit service to downtown, East Lawrence and a couple other pockets of town. Gigabit service is the same super-fast Internet service being provided by Google Fiber in Kansas City. The Wicked proposal would provide the gigabit speeds for both downloads and uploads, which Wicked officials say is particularly important for business users. City commissioners are scheduled to discuss the Wicked proposal at their Tuesday evening meeting.
Humane Society preparing to fight for budget increase; commissioners asked to provide $25,000 in unbudgeted funds for Just Food
It may end up being an interesting evening at Lawrence City Hall tonight because commissioners are set to talk about two items people fiercely guard: pets and money.
Commissioners are nearing the key point in the 2014 budget process where they set the maximum amount of money they are willing to spend for the year.
It looks like a movement is afoot by the Lawrence Humane Society to fill City Hall tonight with people who will argue the city ought to spend more money on pets. Specifically, the Humane Society is seeking about an $80,000 increase in its 2014 budget. City Manager David Corliss is recommending a $20,000 increase, but leaders of the animal shelter are going to argue for the full amount.
Their argument is where the issue gets interesting. Nonprofit agencies ask for more money from the city all the time, but the Humane Society is a bit different of a breed of nonprofit agencies. That’s because the Humane Society is providing a service that by law the city would have to otherwise provide, according to Humane Society executive director Dori Villalon. State law requires that cities have a process in place to impound stray animals. The Humane Society provides that service to the city, and in return the city provided the shelter about $282,000 in funding in 2013.
But Villalon says the shelter recently has begun using a new computer software system that better tracks the actual expenses involved in housing stray animals. After analyzing the numbers, shelter leaders believe the current contract the shelter has with the city falls about $80,000 short of covering its expenses to meet the state-mandated requirement that cities impound stray animals for a certain period of time.
“It is imperative that we close this gap,” Villalon said in a recent letter to commissioners. “LHS (the shelter) isn’t looking to profit from the city contract, but simply cover the cost of providing service, thus protecting the future of our nonprofit organization.”
In case you are wondering, the shelter provided care to 1,665 stray or abandoned cats and dogs from the city in 2012.
When I asked Corliss last week about the shelter’s analysis that the city contract doesn’t cover the basic cost of services, he didn’t dispute it. I’m not sure he has confirmed those numbers either, but rather he said his recommended $20,000 increase is what he could justify without raising the property tax mill levy. Corliss estimates it would take a 0.07 mill increase to fully fund the Humane Society's budget request. That would be on top of a 0.4 mill increase Corliss is recommending to fund other budget issues.
That philosophy is commonly used by the city when determining how much funding it can provide to a host of social service agencies and nonprofits in the community. But the real question here is whether the city is providing financial support to a nonprofit or whether it is being asked to pay for services rendered.
Shelter leaders are indicating it is the latter. The shelter provides a service the city is required to provide, and the city needs to pay an amount to cover the cost of those services. That’s the argument.
Villalon indicated in her letter to commissioners that the shelter — perhaps for years — has been using donations from community members to cover the shortfall that exists between what it costs to provide the state-mandated care and what the city currently pays.
Villalon said the proper use for those donations is to provide care that goes over and above what is mandated by the state law. The law requires stray or abandoned animals to be kept for only a short period of time. Shelters, to avoid euthanizing animals, can choose to keep them for a longer period while they seek to find a family to adopt the pets.
According to the letter and the shelter’s Facebook page, shelter leaders are encouraging supporters of the Humane Society to show up at City Hall tonight to support the budget increase. Shelter leaders are couching the issue in terms of saving lives of animals. In an information sheet the shelter is distributing to supporters, the shelter says if the funding request isn’t granted, “euthanasia of treatable animals may increase.”
Historically, the euthanasia issue has been a hot-button issue in Lawrence, which is a community that seems to really be a pet-loving place. We’ll see how hot the issue gets tonight. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.
UPDATE: City Hall officials have gotten in touch with me today to clarify how they can provide the $25,000 in funding for Just Food without dipping into cash reserves or shortchanging other programs. City Manager David Corliss said he plans to reduce by $25,000 the amount of money that will be spent on sidewalk repair in the city's general fund. That money will be used to pay for the Just Food truck. The sidewalk work will be funded through the $25,000 in CDBG money that had been set aside with the thought it would fund the Just Food truck purchase. By shifting the sidewalk work out of the city's general fund to the CDBG fund, it will limit where the city can perform sidewalk projects. The CDBG funds must spent in one of the low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, such as Oread, Pinckney, East Lawrence or several others.
We’ll go from hot to cold to perhaps back to hot again. Commissioners as part of their consent agenda tonight will be asked to provide $25,000 in funding to the nonprofit food bank Just Food. The organization is run by City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer. The one-time funding will help the organization buy a refrigerated truck that will allow the food bank to collect meat, dairy and other such donations from grocery stores and convenience stores.
We reported in May that Just Food was seeking the city’s assistance to apply for federal funding for the truck through the city’s Community Development Block Program. But word has come back that the truck isn’t eligible for such funding, so now city staff members are recommending that $25,000 in local tax dollars be used to pay for the vehicle.
Plans for the truck do sound promising. Farmer has said it will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience shops and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce. Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.
But the timing of this $25,000 unbudgeted expenditure — which would be made in 2013 — may be unfortunate. City commissioners will be asked to approve it right before they are set to talk about how difficult it is to provide funding to worthy causes in 2014.
City to use eminent domain to take over dilapidated East Lawrence property; Just Food seeks $25,000 in CDBG funding to expand dairy, meat offerings
Well, Town Talk is playing catch-up today. As I previously reported, I was off on Friday to help park cars at the annual Lawrence Auto Swap Meet. And I was off on Monday to clean mud out of places that I didn’t know I had. So, that leaves us with several items of note on tonight’s Lawrence City Commission agenda to update you on. Here’s a look:
• The city is continuing to move down an unusual road in its efforts to see that a piece of East Lawrence property is cleaned up. The city is going through the process of using eminent domain to take over ownership of the property at 1106 Rhode Island St.
For those of you trying to picture the location, it is just east of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center. Or perhaps some of you remember it as the property that for years had multiple old Packard automobiles stored in its overgrown backyard.
The property — owned by the Barland family, which once owned the city’s Packard dealership — has a house and a barn. The house hasn’t been lived in for years, and its condition has been deteriorating.
The city has taken code enforcement action against the Barlands, but the city finds itself in an odd situation. Usually, the big hammer in a code enforcement case of this nature is that ultimately the city can declare the property unsafe and order it to be demolished. But in this case, the property is of a historic nature. The house dates back to 1871, and was owned by one of the city’s more prominent Irish businessmen — Rhody Delahunty, who operated his successful dray wagon business from the site.
Such history makes it likely that the city’s Historic Resources Commission would balk at tearing down the structures. The city has asked the Barland family to come up with ideas to either refurbish/redevelop the property or sell it to someone who is willing to do so. The family hired an architect to come up with proposals, but it hasn’t committed to any of the ideas. It also hasn’t been willing to sell the property, although it has attracted interest from the Lawrence Preservation Alliance.
So, commissioners in February started the process to use eminent domain to acquire the property. At tonight’s meeting, commissioners are being asked to take the next step: authorizing staff members to file a petition with Douglas County District Court that would start the legal proceedings.
The way the process works is that the court will come up with a price that the city must pay for the property. The process can be stopped at any time, if the Barlands and the city come to an agreement on the future of the property.
As for what the city would do with this deteriorating piece of property, that’s not entirely clear. City officials have said their plan would be to accept proposals from parties interested in restoring the property. The most common ideas have been for the property to be restored as a residence, and the barn perhaps as an artist studio or some other type of work space.
We’ll see how the process goes. The city certainly uses eminent domain to purchase easements for roads and utility projects where it can agree on a price with a landowner. But in my 20 years of covering City Hall, this is the first time I remember eminent domain being used to purchase a rundown piece of property. It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a new trend because there’s certainly more than one rundown piece of property in the city.
• Here’s a case where eminent domain wasn’t needed. The city is beginning to purchase easements to run a major water line from the Kaw Water Treatment Plant, across the Kansas River and into North Lawrence.
On tonight’s agenda, the city commission is set to approve paying $80,600 for 25,530 square feet of property. The property is vacant commercial property at 1000 N. Third Street, which is just south of the I-70 Business Center. The property is owned by a trust controlled by Lawrence businessman Samih Staitieh.
The price for the property — it pencils out to $3.15 per square foot — was based on independent appraisals. More purchases for the water line project are expected. The multimillion-dollar project is designed to provide an additional main water line to North Lawrence.
• The recent election of City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer has created an extra piece of paper work for Lawrence City Hall. Commissioners tonight are being asked to approve a conflict of interest waiver that will allow Farmer’s employer to apply for Community Development Block Grant Funding.
Farmer is the CEO of Just Food, the not-for-profit food bank that serves the county. A city advisory board is recommending that Just Food be awarded $25,000 in CDBG funding to buy a refrigerated food truck. But in order for the organization to receive the funding, the city must send a form to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disclosing the conflict of interest and why the money should be awarded to the agency.
The more interesting part is what the truck will allow Just Food to do. Farmer told me the truck will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce.
Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.
Farmer said the program is expected to significantly increase Just Food’s ability to provide milk, eggs, butter, meat and some produce to families.
“This is going to be a huge, huge deal for us,” Farmer said. “I haven’t seen butter and eggs down here in a long time.”
Farmer hopes to have the truck later this summer, but he said the timeline is dependent upon Washington, D.C.. Administrators with the CDBG program are watching to see if the sequestration delays or cuts the amount of funding available to the CDBG program.
City commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. tonight at City Hall.
And you thought your kitchen was busy this holiday season.
I chatted recently with Jeremy Farmer, executive director of Lawrence’s Just Food food bank, and he told me his organization has been busy putting together 916 Christmas baskets for households that were struggling to put a Christmas meal on the table.
The fact that there is an organization that can put together such a charitable effort is heart-warming, but what is disheartening is that the number of people in need of the service has grown significantly.
Farmer said Just Food did 750 baskets last year, so demand is up by about 22 percent. Farmer said the holiday numbers are indicative of the demand the food bank has been seeing all year.
“We definitely don’t see the higher numbers as a success point,” Farmer said. “It is a reminder that as a community, we have failed to solve this problem.”
Look for some significant changes in food bank operations in 2013. We’ll have more on it later, but the United Way program that encourages social services providers to better collaborate is moving into Lawrence’s food pantry system. Farmer said Just Food, which operates a warehouse of food supplies near 11th and Haskell, will begin operating satellite food pantries at several locations, including the Ballard Center and Penn House. In the past, there have been food pantries at those locations, but they have been run independently. Now, it sounds like most of the food pantries in town will come under the management of Just Food.
As I said, we’ll get more details on that in the future.
As far as the Christmas baskets go, the deadline to sign up and qualify for those has already passed. Just Food workers are distributing the baskets through Saturday. The baskets include vegetables, fruit, bread, meat, cranberry sauce, dessert and, of course, gravy.
Ah, gravy. Soon, I will be swimming in it. That’s my way of saying that Town Talk will take a few days off to celebrate the holidays. (And by celebrate, I mean dipping innumerable, edible items in gravy.) Look for the gravy-stained column to return after the New Year.
I sure hope you all have a safe and very happy holiday season.