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Push on to ‘normalize’ minority chambers’ funding

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s four minority group chambers of commerce could see their funding from the city of Austin restructured and made more transparent in the coming budget year, a change that is seen as needed to make the groups more equal.

The city’s Economic Prosperity Commission approved a resolution at its meeting last week asking City Council to have the Economic Development Department create a process to determine how the city calculates the size of each of its annual contributions to the budgets of the four chambers that constitute the Multi-Ethnic Chamber Alliance, known as MECA. That group includes the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

The resolution was crafted after discussion among members of MECA and the Austin Chamber of Commerce that the city has historically not had a clear methodology for funding the smaller chambers, with allocations being determined based on informal meetings with Council members and on funding levels set more than a decade ago. That typically results in a large disparity in city funding between the four groups irrespective of their membership size or community footprint.

According to the city’s online finance records, 2016 payments to the four chambers in MECA topped $825,000, with the $300,096 paid to the Asian chamber more than doubling the $144,937 paid to the gay and lesbian chamber.

The numbers were far different in 2015, with the Hispanic chamber’s $292,317 being the top contribution while the gay and lesbian chamber received $76,916.

The commission’s resolution spells out concerns that the wide fluctuations and different funding levels for chambers that each have to complete similar contracted work to receive their money could be construed as the city paying unequally for equal work.

Looking to address concerns over “inequity and the absence of a transparent methodology used to set MECA Chamber of Commerce budgets,” the resolution calls for a data-driven and transparent process for determining MECA funding, with periodic reviews of the chambers’ contracts to ensure they follow the prescribed guidelines. The resolution, which passed 6-0-1 with Marina Ong Bhargava abstaining, is a recommendation to Council members as they begin sessions to determine next year’s budget, which is expected to be tighter than in recent years.

A move to normalize the city’s contribution to MECA budgets would allow its member organizations to plan better and allocate resources to meet the needs of its members, leaders said.

Robert Lee, chair of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed change would allow his organization to add programs for the city’s fastest-growing ethnic group. This year the city is committed to contributing $142,500 to the chamber’s $500,000 budget, with the rest of its money coming from membership dues, corporate sponsors and program revenue.

“The (funding) process was established many years ago and the Asian chamber would like to see a change in the process that provides more transparency and explanation for how funding is determined,” he said. “The Asian community in Austin is growing quickly and the (funding) process needs to be amended to allow us to add personnel and programs to serve businesses moving in, both locally and internationally.”

Also supporting the proposed revision is the Austin Chamber, which has a far larger staff and pool of resources with funding provided largely by Opportunity Austin.

Tina Cannon, senior director of local government relations for the Austin Chamber, said a predictable funding process is needed for the MECA chambers because the city’s contribution accounts for a large portion of their annual budgets, leaving them guessing until the city budget is passed each year.

“Over the years they’ve tried to normalize how their funding is determined because they depend so much on what the city provides,” Cannon said. “They’re small groups working on getting the job done, and they play an integral role because when a business comes and talks to us about retention and expansion there’s not one company that doesn’t ask about diversity in the community.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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