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City asks neighborhoods to meet halfway on improvements

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 by Kevin Lyons

For residents who’ve grown tired of waiting on the city to fix broken sidewalks or plant trees along a median in their neighborhoods, relief may soon come in the form of an initiative appearing on this Thursday’s Council agenda.

Under a neighborhood matching fund program, neighborhood groups could put up their own volunteer hours and money, which the city would then match to support improvement projects. It’s a way to stretch city dollars in these harsh economic times.

Council Members Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman are sponsoring an item to direct the city manager’s office to determine how the program would work by January 2010.

The hope is that the program would inspire neighborhoods to take the fate of their streets and creek beds and sidewalks into their own hands.

“So many neighborhoods have so many needs and we just can’t meet them all and we are coming out and saying we recognize that,” Cole said Tuesday afternoon. “We either need you to put in some elbow grease or start raising money. And if a neighborhood can actually come up with $1,000 worth of improvements, and we match that $1,000, we may actually be able to put up a swing or begin the process of building a playscape. Meet us halfway with costs and labor.”

Spelman said, “One of the things I like best about the neighborhood match program is the neighborhood doesn’t have to raise money at all– I would envision a one to one match. The neighborhood could pony up cash or materials or services, but most likely it would be the people, evaluated at some reasonable labor rate. And the job of the people would be to build whatever capital improvement they’re proposing to build. Whatever that match ends up being, it allows us to stretch our neighborhood dollars to get $2 in improvements for every $1 in taxes…the second great benefit of the program is it gives our Public Works or other construction departments a real clear clue as to what people really want done in our neighborhoods.”

Spelman added, “It gives the neighborhoods a chance to be positive instead of responding to what developers are looking to do. They can sit down and say, ‘Now we have some control over what happens in our neighborhood. How are we going to use that and are we wiling to pony up the time necessary to participate in the construction of it?’”

For the Windsor Hills Neighborhood Association in Northeast Austin, the measure comes just in time. It recently won a $500,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to develop the 45-acre Gus Garcia Park and will need to raise money to beautify the rest of its neighborhood, which is bound by I-35, Braker Lane, Dessau Road and Rundberg Lane.

“Beautifying a median, or cleaning up a creek requires money that we don’t have, but this changes the equation because with matching funds, it’s like getting a 50 percent off deal on anything we want to buy for our neighborhoods,” said Doug Whitworth, a past president of the neighborhood association and head of the fundraising arm of the Gus Garcia Park.

“We are on the outskirts of town and it’s hard to get people motivated because it seems like the city focuses so much on the central neighborhoods,” Whitworth said. “But this is perfect motivation for us because we need a kick in the butt to get our stuff together.”

The city wants to model its program after the one in Seattle, which has been in place 20 years and has a budget of more than $3.5 million. In that matching program, neighborhoods or communities can apply for four types of matching funds anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to $100,000.

Austin’s program would be much smaller in comparison, funding 10 to 15 projects in the first year with a budget of around $250,000, said Spelman’s policy aide, Barksdale English. The money would come from funds already on hand, he said.  

To qualify for a neighborhood matching fund grant, an applicant would have to show he or she has the financial and or labor support of those in the community. Residents who live in the proposed improvement areas would not have to pay money or volunteer to help to benefit, English said.

“If you, as an individual do not agree with the project or don’t want to support it, you don’t have to do anything,” English said. “It is not a requirement for everyone in the neighborhood or the community to put up money or help.”

On its face, there are possibilities that the plan could lead to inequitable funding between well-to-do neighborhoods and ones not so fortunate. If a neighborhood in Hyde Park or East Austin needs $6,000 for an improvement project, Hyde Park is more likely to come up with its matching share.

Cole, however, refutes that possibility.

“If Hyde Park puts up $3,000 and we put up $3,000, that means we didn’t have to come up with the entire $6,000 which could mean $3,000 for a neighborhood in East Austin or whoever else might need it,” Cole said. “This is about leveraging money we already have with public and private partnerships to maintain the quality of life here in Austin.”

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