First in a series exploring local government budgets
About $2 million in taxpayer money from Charlottesville and $1.5 million from Albemarle County is budgeted for dozens of outside groups.
The amounts account for 1 percent of the city’s budget and 0.4 percent of the county’s. With each budget cycle, decisions are made about allocating taxpayer money to community service organizations and arts and culture endeavors.
To ensure a fair and streamlined process, both the city and county rely on a group known as the Agency Budget Review Team, made up of community volunteers tasked with recommending a funding strategy that’s in the best interests of both localities.
“ABRT covers everything from Shelter for Help in Emergency and preschool learning to housing to Offender Aid & Restoration and all the way over to the Virginia Festival of the Book and the Film Festival and Tom Tom Founders Festival,” said Kirby Hutto, a review team volunteer and general manager of the nTelos Wireless Pavilion. “That is a pretty wide swath.”
The review team seeks to quantify the community benefits each group offers, allowing elected officials to consider funding requests “in a non-emotional way,” Hutto said.
Funding applications ask organizations to explain the need, strategy, evaluation process, financial benefits and collaboration efforts as well as how programs engage the community.
“The ABRT tries to give [elected officials] an informed opinion about how they want to direct their resources,” said Charlottesville Human Services Director Mike Murphy, who helps oversee the effort.
“We dig down and ask questions from the application,” Hutto said. “There are a series of meetings where we review the data and begin to score them. It is a fairly big commitment. It is something the community should value.”
Community outreach is an evaluation criterion. Failing to reach a targeted population can result in less funding. Applications get one of four ratings: weak, fair, solid or exemplary.
For example, Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries’ money management program received a fair rating and was recommended for a $5,625 allocation rather than the requested $9,000.
“They projected they would serve a certain number of people and haven’t been able to get it off the ground as quickly as they had hoped,” said Gretchen Ellis, a manager of the review team process and a city human-service planner.
Once the recommendations are made, some organizations directly lobby the City Council and the Board of Supervisors for more money.
“The recommendations related to [the Monticello Area Community Action Agency and] Head Start … will be controversial,” Ellis acknowledged.
The team recommended $44,500 in county money for Head Start, about $5,000 less than last year and $17,300 less than the agency requested.
“The cuts to Head Start, a program to help low-income children, are going to greatly affect our ability to match the federal dollars,” Barbara Miller, the agency’s executive director, told supervisors last month. “These are our neighbors. These are family people that come to us for assistance.”
The team recommended a 9 percent decrease in city funding for Head Start and about $28,000 less than requested. A review team report cited a lack of meaningful collaboration.
“It is up to [the elected officials] to decide whether they would like to make more or less of an investment than is recommended,” Murphy said.
“Traditionally, the City Council has been a lot more lobby-able than the Board of Supervisors,” Ellis said.
A review of last year’s budget shows that organizations assessed by the team for the City Council received a total of $79,828 more than recommended. The county allocated just $8,300 more than the team recommended.
Albemarle this year separated arts and cultural funding from the review team process.
“Cultural funding was brought back in-house this year because the [previous] board wanted to be directive,” county spokeswoman Lee Catlin told the supervisors earlier this month.
“If there is a different process that still is data-driven that takes these requests out of ABRT, then I think that is still fine,” Hutto said.
One organization with a history of community service dating to 1922 now finds itself on the short end of Albemarle’s budget process.
The Charlottesville Municipal Band originally asked the county for $12,000. Once the recommendation was made for them to receive $5,000, members of the band went before the board March 5 in hopes of securing an additional $3,000, which would have restored the county’s funding to last year’s total of $8,000.
“During the 2013 budget year, the band and ensembles performed more than 50 programs for more than 20,000 people in the Charlottesville-Albemarle community,” said band director Steve Layman.
“They certainly contribute to our quality of life,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel said.
The band plays at events such as the July 4 ceremony at Monticello and the Crozet Independence Day parade, as well as at places such as Mountainside Senior Living, among many others.
“[The band] has a long history with us,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer. “I hate to see it struggle too much.”
Although the proposed Albemarle funding is short of what the band sought, the group did receive a recommendation for full funding, $55,000, in the city, a recommendation made by the ABRT.
A council work session on funding for nonprofit groups is scheduled for Thursday with a public hearing on the budget set for April 7. Supervisors have finalized their funding plan and plan to hold a budget public hearing April 8.