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Chamber groups’ funding would become leveled under proposed process

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s Economic Development Department is in the beginning stages of restructuring how local chambers of commerce are funded by the city, with the goal of making the funding more equitable and available to more groups.

A recent memo from interim EDD Director Rebecca Giello details the options for opening a stakeholder process that would convene members from more than a half-dozen specialized chambers, with an eye toward making the funding in the city’s Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget align with City Council’s most recent strategic plan through 2023.

For a decade or more there has been a wide disparity in the amount of funding the city provides to the four chambers that make up the Multi-Ethnic Chamber Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and other similar groups. The memo notes: “Performance metrics in these various contracts may or may not align with Council’s new Strategic Direction. There have been requests by other chambers regarding access to financial assistance from the City of Austin.”

It also spells out the different funding levels for the four MECA groups for the past five years, with some groups’ totals fluctuating dramatically. MECA funding for the 2018 budget year breaks down as:

  • Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce – $153,750
  • Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce – $142,500
  • Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce – $171,000
  • Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – $212,500

Last year the city’s Economic Prosperity Commission passed a resolution asking the city to create a standardized method for determining the funding levels for the MECA groups. The commission’s concern centered in part on the fact that the city’s contracts for each group called for similar services and deliverables, but the varying reimbursement amounts created the perception of different minority groups receiving unequal pay for similar work.

The memo calls for the MECA groups to be joined by Austin Young Chamber, Austin Independent Business Alliance and the Disability Chamber of Commerce in pitching for ideas on how to expand and equalize funding for the various groups.

The city’s Equity Office would help to design the stakeholder process, which would be led by an outside consultant that would also assist in the creation of a self-assessment tool for the chambers to evaluate themselves.

The stakeholder group would then release a report and recommendations on equitable funding, which the city could use when evaluating future funding requests from the chambers.

Marina Bhargava, chief executive officer of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, said her group’s current contract that ends in February was increased by Council to $202,500, in part because of the concerns over the low funding amounts for some groups.

She said she and the leaders of other chambers are looking forward to creating an equitable process for determining future funding levels.

“We’ve never had this conversation before, so the fact that they’re having it is great,” she said. “They’re engaging with the chambers they’re already funding, plus other chambers. In general, my thoughts are if you’re asked to do the same work, you should be paid the same amount. The different minority communities have different needs, and when we begin to have those conversations, taking those different needs into account will make sense.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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