Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 22, 2013

Less food, more creativity wanted out of neighborhoods grants

Commission: 'Know Your Neighbors' should focus more on innovative events

by Sue Dremann

Palo Alto's one-year-old Know Your Neighbors grant program should focus less on subsidizing block parties and food and more on new ideas and additional neighborhoods next year, the Parks and Recreation Commission told city staff on Tuesday evening.

The City Council approved a $25,000 expenditure for 2013 to finance small, neighborhood events that build community and encourage relationships, especially among new neighbors. The council will review and vote on the full proposal on Dec. 9, when the program is up for its 2014 funding. Staff presented a preliminary report, including this year's results, for feedback to the parks and recreation commission on Nov. 19.

Commissioners were uniformly pleased with the 2013 results. But they agreed with staff that financing food purchases, some of which were a bit extravagant, should be reined in.

The Know Your Neighbors program, the brainchild of former Mayor Yiaway Yeh, launched on April 11, approving 39 grants up to $1,000 each. Of those, 22 events took place, ranging from a big-screen movie night to a multicultural barbecue and yoga day in a park. About 3,175 people participated, and the city spent $19,378.28, or $6.10 per person, Recreation Supervisor Khashayar Alaee said.

"This is very exciting, and I think it's money well-spent," Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said.

Staff has recommended the 2014 grants budget remain at $25,000. But Chairman Ed Lauing said he would favor increasing the budget to $30,000. Some neighborhoods submitted proposals after the allocation deadline, and staff plans to increase advertising and public outreach. The commission didn't vote on the recommendation Tuesday.

Some changes in 2014 could leave past recipients without funding this year. Commissioners said they want under-represented neighborhoods and different people to take part. Events such as block parties, which neighborhoods have routinely funded on their own, might be put on a secondary tier for funding, they suggested.

More than half of the funded proposals in 2013 were for events the neighborhoods had done previously, Alaee said.

"I think you have to be careful about funding repeats," Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Hetterly said.

Only 27 percent were "new and innovative ideas," which was a program goal, Alaee said.

Those events should create a "structure" that residents can build upon, beyond a single-day event, Commissioner Deirdre Crommie said.

"It's a model used in the Girl Scouts. There's a life beyond the project that continues on," she said.

Commissioners were concerned about funding give-away items. Granting $1,000 for an emergency-preparedness event that distributed emergency-supply backpacks to 25 people was considered "a little unsustainable" by Crommie.

Hetterly agreed. An event that helps people build emergency kits might be more appropriate, she said.

Grants for food might also be capped next year.

"We did see significant amounts spent on food. In some cases on very good food," Alaee said.

Grant recipients also would not be reimbursed for expenses that were co-mingled with personal purchases, Alaee said. That practice created a significant administrative burden to go through line by line.

A survey of 2013 participants found the program met three if its stated goals: It increased communication, enhanced pride and identity within neighborhoods and included multiple generations and cultures. But commissioners suggested that staff create a map on which they would plot the neighborhoods receiving grants. In that way, they could better gauge which neighborhoods are under-represented, they said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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