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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 0.0° F  Fair
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Madison community groups compete for shrinking city funds
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Denzel Irby: 'I was nourished by the Boys & Girls Club.'
Denzel Irby: 'I was nourished by the Boys & Girls Club.'
Credit:Joe Tarr

Will Green has come to the city three times to ask for financial support for his nonprofit, Mentoring Positives. He founded it with his wife in 2004 to work with disadvantaged youth on the city's east-side Darbo-Worthington neighborhood.

"The first time, I was very new to them," says Green, who wasn't surprised to be turned down that go-around. "The second time, we were right there to get funding" but narrowly missed out.

"This time, the third time, I was like, there's no way we're not going to get funding," he says. "We've got an outstanding support award from the chief of police."

But so far, the third time has not been the charm for Mentoring Positives. This year, the organization was unsuccessful in its application for two grants, a $45,000 one to support its leadership mentoring program and a $75,000 one to support its urban agriculture program, Off the Block Salsa.

The lack of funding is making it hard for Mentoring Positives to continue. "If we were gone out of Darbo-Worthington, I worry about what will happen," Green says. "We're like a levy in Hurricane Katrina waters."

Awarding grants to community nonprofit groups is one of the city's most painful processes.

Do you want to cut money for abused women and children or for the homeless? Or for job training? Or for groups that help poor kids?

Every two years, the community groups -- all arguably doing meaningful work on shoestring budgets -- go before committees and make a case for why the city should give them money. And if they're successful, they could be siphoning funds away from friends at other organizations.

"This is heart-wrenching," says Ald. Matt Phair, who sits on the Community Development Block Grant Committee, one of two committees overseeing funding for community groups. "There's such a huge need in the community. There's a need for homeless services. There's a real need for services for at-risk youth. It's tough."

He adds, "We only have a certain amount of dollars."

This year, Mayor Paul Soglin asked all city departments to cut their budgets by 5% from current funding levels. Which means the Community Services Division only has $6,331,386 to dole out to about 90 programs, says the division's acting director, Hickory Hurie. CDBG funds -- which come mostly from the state and federal government -- amount to about $3.5 million, he says.

At a Thursday night hearing (PDF), representatives from the community groups pleaded with the committees not to cut their funds -- or, in the case of Mentoring Positives, to finally give them some.

The Boys & Girls Club of Dane County showed up with 30 to 40 people -- many of them teenagers -- to make the case for how valuable the program is. Denzel Irby, who now attends DePaul University in Chicago, told the committees how important the Boys and Girls Club was to him growing up.

"I was nourished by the Boys and Girls Club," he said. "Growing up, college was a dream to me. But at the Boys and Girls Club, I was expected to go to college."

The club is facing a cut of about $10,000 from the city, says CEO Michael Johnson. Its two centers are slated to get about $541,000 of CDBG funding over the next two years.

But Johnson says the Boys and Girls Club has been asked to do more and more in recent years, serving larger populations with more programs. And he says, "We don't charge kids to participate."

With a loss in funding, the club will be forced to look at scaling back programs and perhaps reducing the number of days it is open.

Johnson says he understands money is short and the club has to show it's being a "good steward of the taxpayers' money and getting results."

Rachel Krinsky, chief executive officer of the YWCA Madison, says her organization is facing a $6,000 cut to its transit program, which provides safe rides to women at night and also gives people rides to jobs to places not served by Madison Metro. It's a program the city asked the YWCA to take on after the Women's Transit Authority shut down in 2006.

"It's a painful process. These committee members make very hard decisions," Krinsky says. "There are many good organizations in Madison. We partner with some of them. But we all know our role is to make a case for our organization."

The city committees have compiled a B-list for groups to be considered if more funding is allocated. Mentoring Positives is on that list.

Green understands times are tough and doesn't want to take money away from other groups doing meaningful work. But he points out that east-side groups got less funding than those in other areas of town. And the city needs to make a priority of helping children, he adds.

"We do it because it's so critical and so valuable," he says. He says that violence and assaults happening on University Avenue now are a consequence of "not engaging these kids early on. This is pay now or pay later."

The committees' recommendations now head to Mayor Paul Soglin, who could make further changes before submitting the list to the Common Council, which could also make changes.

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