Under a proposal on its way to the City-County Council, the Indianapolis Parks Foundation would oversee millions of dollars in tax-supported grants for crime prevention.
The council will consider the proposal on Feb. 28, following unanimous approval by the Public Safety Committee earlier this month. Ben Hunter, the Republican councilor who spearheaded the change, said his goal is to remove politicians from the grant-awarding process.
Hunter also hopes the parks foundation will use its connections to attract support for crime prevention from private sources. The city’s grant fund started out at $5 million in 2009, dropped to $4 million last year, and will drop again this year to $2 million.
“What we’re doing is the start of moving this to a more professional format by teaming up with the Indianapolis Parks Foundation,” Hunter said.
The crime-prevention grants are the result of a 65-percent increase in the county option income tax the council passed in 2007 to address various public-safety issues, including funding pensions and hiring more police officers. Democratic councilor Monroe Gray advocated for a small amount of the more than $50 million in new revenue to be set aside for crime prevention.
Last year, 68 not-for-profit organizations and churches received grants for programs involving youth, education, health, neighborhoods and inmate re-entry.
It’s not clear yet how the spending priorities might change under the parks foundation, but the council would no longer have a direct say in the matter.
Grants would be approved by a separate seven-member board. Five of the members would be nominated by the parks foundation board and approved by the council. The mayor would appoint one member, and the seventh slot would be filled by the clerk of the council, who is Melissa Thompson.
In the past, an advisory board made recommendations, which the council tweaked or approved. The City-County Council will continue to decide each year how much money to funnel to the crime-prevention grants.
Parks Foundation Executive Director Cindy Porteous already is rounding up board nominees and hashing out details of her agreement with the city. If the council OKs the setup, she’ll announce it March 3 at the IPL Mayor’s Lunch for Parks, a fundraiser that draws about 500 businesspeople.
“We’d like to leverage these dollars,” Porteous said. “We want to demonstrate to them this is the right thing to do.”
Some corporate donors that have backed capital improvements in the city’s parks might also get behind park-based programs for kids and families, Porteous said. The foundation itself used a small crime-prevention grant of $19,000 to address bullying last year.
So far, the $6.5 million foundation’s only client has been the city parks department. Hunter said he wanted to partner with the parks foundation because it’s done a good job over the years. Last year, Lilly Endowment said it would give $7.3 million for major parks improvements, and the grants are being managed by the parks foundation.
Nominees to the new crime-grant board won’t have any previous ties to the parks foundation, Porteous said. However, they might decide to dedicate some portion of the money to not-for-profits that work in parks.
Such criteria would make less money available for applicants such as Wishard Hospital, which used $169,000 on an intervention program that tries to steer gunshot and stabbing victims away from future incidents of violence.
“I really feel the people appointed to this board will make a fair and equitable decision,” Porteous said.
Dennis Rosenbaum, a criminology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies prevention, said even small city grant funds can lead to model programs that have a measurable effect on crime. It’s important that whoever oversees the money takes “some kind of problem-oriented approach,” he said.
“You need a plan; you need to consult the evidence about what works,” Rosenbaum said.
Interest in the crime-grant fund rose last year as not-for-profits scrambled to balance their budgets. IndyReads even launched a new program because the fund existed. The literacy group is using a $24,000 grant to make its volunteer tutors available at Marion County Jail II.
Executive Director Travis DiNicola said his board of directors and volunteers wanted IndyReads to reach out to inmates, anyway, and Mayor Greg Ballard encouraged him to apply for a grant.
IndyReads so far has reached 55 men at the jail, which is for non-violent offenders. Their needs range from learning the alphabet to understanding the terms of their probation, DiNicola said.
IndyReads doesn’t typically start programs to chase grant money, DiNicola said, and the amount that was finally awarded doesn’t cover the costs. At the same time, DiNicola thinks the program is successful and necessary.
“We’ve been really struggling with this,” DiNicola said. “We don’t know how it’s going to continue.”
Hunter said he and other councilors behind the proposal—Republican Ryan Vaughn, Democrat Vernon Brown and Gray—would have liked to see more of the grantees working directly with the public safety department, either asking for advice or involving officers in their programs.
A memorandum of understanding that’s attached to the proposal will spell out any such criteria. The latest draft would direct 5 percent of the money toward professional-development costs for public safety employees who want to work with not-for-profits.
Porteous said the details could be revised again before Feb. 28.
While Hunter was concerned about the grant program’s lack of focus, the problem for not-for-profit managers was a huge delay in payments and time-consuming reporting requirements.
Porteous has promised that if the 2011 grant money is shifted to the parks foundation, it will be in the hands of not-for-profits by June 1.
“We know the importance of timeliness and efficiency,” she said.•