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'Sharing' of Funds Proposed

City may cut support for nonprofits to preserve discretionary account.

May 13, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco has proposed reducing support of home-delivered meals for seniors, gang prevention programs and free health care for the uninsured, among other programs, in an effort to preserve a fund that has been used partially to finance council staff hiring and raises.

The move would reduce by 10% the city funding that goes to an array of nonprofit groups. Instead, about $2.3 million would be set aside for the council's neighborhood improvement accounts, a discretionary fund designed to give the 15 council members money for neighborhood beautification and other pet projects in their districts.

However, a Times examination of how the money was spent during the last two years showed that more than 40% of the neighborhood improvement funds was transferred to council salary accounts. Several council members used the account to boost the pay of their staff and hire more employees, while others simply let the unspent money accumulate in their salary accounts.

For the last two years, each council member has received a $250,000 annual neighborhood improvement account, a fund Mayor James K. Hahn did not include in his proposed 2003-04 budget. Many council members support restoring the money, saying they need it to finance worthy organizations in their districts.

Pacheco, who spent more of his account than any other council member on community programs, said eliminating the funds would hamper council members' ability to assist poorer neighborhoods in the city.

"I can give you the significant impact in my district in terms of zeroing out my neighborhood improvement account," Pacheco said during a council Budget Committee meeting last week. "I can't speak for anyone else who didn't use their funds in the neighborhoods."

His proposal to restore the fund by taking 10% of the money that goes to nonprofit organizations will be discussed at a Budget Committee meeting today. It would have to be approved by the full council and would be subject to a veto by the mayor.

The city currently gives a total of $23.6 million in general city purpose funds to 27 community-based organizations, many of which have received the money for almost two decades. About half the money -- $12 million -- goes to L.A. Bridges, a gang prevention program that provides activities for middle school students.

"I consider this a share, not a take," Pacheco said of trimming the nonprofit groups' budgets by 10%.

However, several organizations said losing money would hurt their service levels, especially during a time of financial uncertainty.

The Venice Family Clinic, which provides free health care to 18,000 patients a year, receives $50,000 from the city, a fraction of its $14-million budget. But Elizabeth Forer, the clinic's executive director, said other financing the program receives could also be slashed next year.

"At a time when state and county funds are in jeopardy for not-for-profits, to further cut them would be very poor timing," Forer said.

The Los Angeles Conservation Corps receives $1.5 million from the city for its Clean and Green job program, which employs about 2,000 teenagers a year to plant trees and spruce up neighborhoods. A 10% cut would mean the program could hire about 200 fewer students, said Bruce Saito, the organization's executive director.

"That would be significant for us," he said.

Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski balked when Pacheco broached his idea last week.

"Ten percent fewer seniors are going to get meals based on your recommendation," she said.

"Everyone is going to be asked to do a little less," Pacheco agreed. "I'm asking them to share."

A spokeswoman for Hahn said the mayor does not support the idea of cutting the money for the nonprofit organizations.

"We think these have been and should continue to be important priorities for the city," said Julie Wong, Hahn's communications director.

The council's use of the neighborhood improvement funds has come under criticism from some community activists who say more of it should have been used for worthwhile projects.

Fairfax district resident Robert Cherno said he asked Councilman Jack Weiss' office to help pay for sidewalk repair and other projects and was told there was no money available.

"I was pretty outraged," Cherno said.

"I've been told over and over again that they don't have these funds, and now we find out that they have a fund for exactly these things."

Weiss, who spent the smallest share of his neighborhood improvement account of any council member, said his office does not have a record of Cherno's request.

"There's no question that there are needs in my district and throughout the city," Weiss said.

"But the fact that there is a strong push to eliminate this funding altogether only reinforces my sense that it was appropriate to be prudent with this money for the future, rather than spending it rapidly."

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