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Youth center funding raises questions

Friday, April 29, 2011 by Michael Kanin

This story has been corrected. Friday’s story erroneously stated that Michael Lofton had run against Sheryl Cole for City Council.


An apparently simple resolution co-sponsored by Council members Randi Shade and Chris Riley and Mayor Lee Leffingwell directing City Manager Marc Ott to examine funding options for an African-American youth resource center prompted a much wider discussion at Thursday’s City Council meeting.


The organization at the center of the debate was Michael Lofton’s African-American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation.


Council members Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole raised questions about the city funding process for Austin-sponsored social service programs, with Spelman wondering why any potential funding for the resource center had not been vetted via a competitive process. Shade told him that the organization behind the project had “never been funded through our social service contracts.”


“The organization hadn’t been in existence long enough and didn’t have the metrics in place to qualify through our procurement process to apply either,” she added.


Still, Shade defended their position. “This a great example of a grassroots effort that has been partnering with the city and with the school district and with our Health and Human Services Department for quite some time now,” she said.


Spelman continued to press the point. Eventually, Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald said that Austin Energy had provided funding for the group behind the youth center, as well as other like organizations, in the past. This was a matter of some worry for Spelman.


“I think it’s a fine organization that is doing very, very good work,” he said. “My concern here is mostly with the process by which we are singling out this – and apparently some other organizations – from being funded though Austin Energy rather than through our usual social services contracting procedures.”


Shade argued that other such programs get funding outside the city’s normal social service process. “In Parks, we also fund things that could be considered social services,” she said. “Of course, Austin police … (fund) midnight basketball.”


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez added that “we have other established programs that don’t run through the social service that we fund to the tune of $1 million a year – the Holly Good Neighbor Program.” That program is winding down because the Holly Power Plant has closed.


Cole offered Martinez a winking retort. “I believe Mayor Pro Tem Martinez has just offered to fund the African-American resource center in the same amount that we fund the Holly Good Neighbor Program,” she said.


“I would like to remind my colleagues that on issues that are very important to the African-American community, it is important that when we direct staff to do something, to consider something, that we do that with all seriousness,” Cole said. “Our community is a little concerned about our credibility, so I would just hope that when the recommendations come back that we would decide to, not only research this item … but that we ultimately authorize, execute, and fund.


“So I appreciate Council Member Spelman’s line of questioning because I think that we really need to make sure that we are prepared to do that.”


Spelman wondered if Shade would accept a thorough vetting of contracts that would direct Ott to find “a way of taking this and the other contracts which could be construed as social services and bringing that under our social services contract” as a friendly amendment. Shade said that she wouldn’t but that she would work with him to do so in the future.


Council passed the resolution by a unanimous vote. Ott is set to bring his funding recommendation for the youth center back to Council on May 12.


Last summer, Council Members Shade, Riley and Martinez, as well as Mayor Leffingwell voted against a settlement agreement in the police shooting death of Nathaniel Sanders, angering many members of the African-American community. Cole, Spelman and Laura Morrison were on the losing side of that 4-3 vote. 

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