Where has all the money gone?

Mark Ellis Journalist and Writer
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When I worked as a reporter for a Southwest Portland monthly a few years back, I got a glimpse of a world I had never experienced, the world of micro-local community organization. The editor of the Southwest Portland Post was committed to covering the various neighborhood associations, which are quite active amid the suburban hills and garden apartment blocks in that quadrant of the Rose City. I had occasion to sit in on quite a few neighborhood meetings and hear considerable discussion about controversial traffic change issues, the perils of proposed development, and environmental concerns.

What struck me right off was how much time and attention was given to the process of securing public funds for local projects. It often seemed that for an association to fulfill its function, constant efforts had to be made to lobby for whatever monies presently, or at some time in the future, might be available.

This exercise in fiscal reclamation seemed convoluted. It had been instilled in me from a young age that the less you give to Uncle Sam and his local affiliates the better. I suppose you could say I was lucky that I didn’t need the government to do more for me than defend the country, look out for infrastructure, fund basic public education, and provide essential emergency services. The idea of applying to receive services or benefits never crossed my mind. But it was very much on the minds of my neighbors who met in church basements and community rec rooms.

I soon learned that the big dog in the hunt was Southwest Neighborhoods Incorporated, a nonprofit community coalition that works with 17 volunteer-based neighborhood associations to help them connect with city government. Seventy-four percent of SWNI’s budget comes from that government.

One of the singular aspects of SWNI, which the residents regularly pronounced “Sweeney,” was the organization’s small grant program, the place to go for seed money to design community projects, such as the Maplewood Summer Social ($1,000) or the Dickenson Park Community Outreach ($1,100). Other representative projects include collective opportunities to clean out your closets and yard debris, or a Meet the Candidates Fair (no Republicans need ever apply).

SWNI came up often at the meetings, and there would be much strategizing and hand-wringing about what funds might be available, how best to petition for them, and the status of pending requests.

Recently an associate from my Southwest days emailed a link to an Oregonian story about an unnamed SWNI employee who is accused of embezzling from the organization. The story informed readers about the suspected embezzlement, and offered assurances that the organization had taken steps to ensure the future safety of the public fund. The paper also confirmed that the nonprofit has two full-time and two part-time employees, and revealed that over a quarter of a million dollars had been granted to SWNI this fiscal year.

My correspondent’s question?  “What has happened to the $260,000 that has been given to this organization this year? Has anything real been done with the money?”

It has become the question of our times. Where the hell has all the money gone? While SWNI’s withdrawal from the public trough and subsequent dispersals may seem like small potatoes in the current environment of recession, deficit, debt, and unsustainable commitments, the community organizing nexus attracts a lot of much bigger thinkers.

One well-meaning physician wanted to provide health insurance to all Portland children with taxpayer dollars, including those whose parents were not American citizens. Another proposal would have erected solar panels on a berm near Wilson High School, with a big upfront payday coming to the “green” contractor and assurances forthcoming that the panels would heat the schools in winter and eventually pay for themselves.

Another proposal, actually set to paper by the city and then pronounced dead, was a plan to demolish the concrete monolith of the Naito Parkway — to the tune of millions upon millions — with the goal of reconnecting a neighborhood that had been sliced and diced since the sixties.

When Sears Center Armory was decommissioned by the Army and delivered to the City of Portland, only one entity, Westside Christian Schools, came forward and offered to actually pay real money for the site. Instead it was awarded to a nongovernmental agency that plans to build affordable housing on the site.

Some proposals flew, other fell to earth, but I can’t remember one that did not get rubber-stamped with minimal discussion by the neighborhood associations. The capper was that the people at the meetings often complained about the wrong kind of developers, those deemed somehow undesirable and possibly not politically correct. The irony was that these would be the very developers who would add to the tax base and provide the revenues for the most sensible of the local projects.

In fairness to my friends in the Southwest neighborhood associations, my time on the beat there was pre-Meltdown. My guess is that these days there’s probably a lot less to talk about.

As a reporter for the Northwest Connection, I have connected with the diametric opposite of the type of citizen engagement I found intrinsically disingenuous in Southwest. As a willing and supportive conduit for Tea Party issues and concerns, I have joined them in taking a stand against the kind of creeping taxation and crony earmarking that have bankrupted so many of our country’s municipalities and turned New Jersey governor Chris Christie into a national hero.

There are good Americans who get involved and make a commitment to act locally. But with government money trickling down to the neighborhoods in the form of grants, programs, and pet projects, even in times of recession, you can expect to hear my old Southwest buddy’s question again and again.

Whether the $260,000 allocated to the SWNI was embezzled or spent on neighborhood projects, I think it would have been better left in the hands of the people who earned it.

Mark Ellis is a journalist and writer from Portland, Oregon.