Mon09012014

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Charity or community engagement: Los Altos Hills grants trigger discussion


Town Crier File Photo
The Los Altos Hills City Council is discussing the benefits of its service grants to nonprofit organizations like Hidden Villa.

It’s difficult to argue that open space, counseling for students, support for victims of domestic violence or animal rescue services don’t contribute to an improved quality of life in Los Altos Hills. As a small community, such services and resources frequently fall in the hands of partner organizations. In the past few months though, a question has started to surface: should local government spend taxpayer money to support nonprofit organizations benefitting only a small number of residents?

Through a community service grant program, the town of Los Altos Hills awards grants to a variety of groups that provide services that would be “cost prohibitive for the Town to organize and manage on its own” or are “outside the scope of a traditional full-service municipality.” During the 2013-14 fiscal year, the town distributed $51,500 grants ranging from $1,400 to $9,000 to 17 organizations that met the aforementioned criteria.

“It helps us provide services, especially on school campuses and at clinics,” said Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) executive director Monique Kane of how her organization capitalized on the $6,400 grant it received from the town during the 2013-14 year. “It may seem like a small amount, but to us it’s huge.”

Although currently categorized as one of the town’s community service grantees, the town of Los Altos Hills has budgeted funds annually since 1973 to the Community Health Awareness Council under a Joint Power Authority agreement that was signed with the cities of Los Altos, Mountain View and their school districts. The town’s grant program grew to include other groups on the grant list. Among the organizations funded in the 2013-14 budget were regional groups like the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter, the Peninsula Humane Society and United Way Silicon Valley, as well as community-based organizations like Hidden Villa. The program has dispensed nearly $400,000 in grants since 2006.

Conversation on the methodology behind the grant program and whether council should have the program at all have emerged in recent months.

Los Altos Hills’ philanthropy in question

Although the proposed community service grant allocation amounts to less than one percent of the 2014-15 annual budget for the town of Los Altos Hills, at least one member of council argues that it is irresponsible for the council to distribute $60,000 of town funds to local nonprofit organizations.

“Over the last 18 months, I have made no secret of my distaste for giving taxpayer’s money away,” said Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan at a June 2 joint city council and Finance and Investment Committee meeting in regards to the community service grants. “… We should eliminate the practice all together rather than make value judgments about which organizations are most worth and especially when they serve only a small portion of the population in the Hills.”

While Corrigan says that she holds many of the organizations that the town has supported in high regards and even writes personal checks to some of them, fundamentally, she thinks that the Los Altos Hills council is overstepping their authority. In Corrigan’s view, members of council are expected to allocate taxes for items like roads, emergency services, animal control and law enforcement, not for charitable donations. With a tight town budget, she believes that council should spend town funds in a way that more evenly impacts town residents.

According to Corrigan’s calculations, $60,000 would be enough money to build a dog park, fund the entire cost of landscaping work in town, pay the subsidy for the baseball fields at Purissima Park or hire the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office for 364 more hours of patrol services in the community.

Mayor Radford countered Corrigan’s argument by noting that he doubts that any money the council spends actually benefits 100 percent of residents.

“If our criteria is that it (budget allocations) benefits everyone in our town, than we should shut down Westwind Barn and close down little league because only 100 residents use the fields,” said Radford.

Instead of looking at the town’s community service grants as charitable contributions, he asked members of council to see the money they give to partner organizations as investments – a view shared by the remaining members of council.

“I support many of your ideas, but since taking a position on council I’ve adopted a different view,” said Councilman Gary Waldeck in reaction to the dialogue that Corrigan sparked.

”One of the things we need to be doing is promoting a sense of community. It helps build our own image and the camaraderie of people in our town with people outside of the community. We’re helping out in a way that will come back to us in the long run,” adds Waldeck.

Benefits beyond borders

Organizations that receive funds from the town also contend that the town’s community service grants represent more than just monetary donations.

The $9,000 grant to Hidden Villa during the 2013-14 fiscal year allowed more than 1000 Los Altos Hills residents to enjoy 1600 acres of wilderness and trails via free season passes and a host of events and activities, but Hidden Villa Deputy Director of Development Marc Sidel believes that his organization provides a much larger community benefit.

“When the Town makes their grant to Hidden Villa, they are directly investing in the recreational and educational opportunities that enrich the lives of Town residents,” notes Sidel. “The support from the Town also benefits tens of thousands of residents in other bay area municipalities, helping to build a community that is blind to town and city borders.

The Community Health Awareness Council’s said that the Town of Los Altos Hill’s grant funding allows the group’s counselors serve more than 100 students from Los Altos Hills each year who face mental health challenges such as bullying, self-inflicted harm, anxiety and stress. The town’s support also has a reverberating effect on the organization’s ability to fundraise.

“Their support helps us when doing foundation and grant writing, because it’s (funding from public entities) unusual,” said Kane. “It gives us legitimacy.”

Above all though, CHAC and other grant recipients see the grants as responsible investments in entities that are the “safety net in the community.” A comment by Councilmember John Harpootlian echoed this notion, acknowledging that it was the council’s responsibility to serve all residents.

“While there are some people that are billionaires in our community, there are some people living on social security.”

Right idea, wrong approach?

While no member of the Los Altos Hills council is in opposition to the work of the various nonprofits currently supported by town grants, how organizations are selected for grant gifting and the criteria utilized to determine eligibility are being reviewed.

Discussion about community services could resurface during the final 2014-15 budget discussion at tomorrow night’s city council meeting, Corrigan said she’ll advocate for changes regardless of what happens.

“If the vote is 4 to1 and I’m going to be forced to give it away, I’d like to see who else would like the money,” said Corrigan of the possibility that she could remain the only council dissenter. “I have no problem creating some sort of display or methodology in town hall help residents connect with organization, but it’s not role of government to fund them.”

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