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Who's got the OK for CDBG?

Some members of the Grand Forks City Council want to exert more control over a $200,000 social services fund that they'd previously given to United Way to dole out, going against both the advice of staff and area nonprofit groups.

Some members of the Grand Forks City Council want to exert more control over a $200,000 social services fund that they'd previously given to United Way to dole out, going against both the advice of staff and area nonprofit groups.

Council member Art Bakken said at a Wednesday work session that the council used to give out the money itself before the 1997 flood, and everything worked out just fine.

"We had more oversight and more discussion than we do now," he said. "I don't think that's a bad thing."

His view, however, is contradicted by Charlie Bremseth, executive director of the LISTEN Center.

"In the old days," he wrote in a letter to the council, "a committee was set up by the City Council, the recommendations were made, and then, the City Council would change those decisions at a whim leading to distrust of the system and frustration by the charities for all the time and energy expended when their manpower may be limited."

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For this reason, he said, the council gave the job to United Way in the first place.

Council member Eliot Glassheim, who does not agree with council control of the fund, said he feared having politicians give the money away only would politicize the process, causing nonprofit groups to spend a lot of time lobbying the council.

Council members compromised by having United Way recommend allocations and having the council give final approval. In 2009, the city would take another look at how the allocation process has worked and decide whether to stick with it.

Less money

The fund is formally known as the Public Service Program, and the money for it comes out of the city's annual federal allocation of Community Development Block Grants. Though $200,000 is not a huge amount in the scheme of things, it means a lot to nonprofits because they can use the money to match grants from private foundations.

Council member Curt Kreun said the council has a broader view of the needs of those of low to moderate income, whom CDBG are meant to help. The money could be used, for example, to help poorer homeowners pay for street improvements, he said.

United Way President Pat Berger said nonprofits work to help those more desperate, namely the working poor, who can barely make ends meet even in a two-income family.

Council member Doug Christensen said United Way could still lobby and influence the council's decision.

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Expertise

The problem with the council making the decision is council members don't know the needs of the community the way United Way's allocation committee does, Berger said. The council used to spend a night deciding which group got what, she said, while United Way's volunteers spend days.

Many of the recipients of that funding, such as the LISTEN Center's Bremseth, said they prefer United Way handling the fund.

"I cannot imagine who would have a better sense of community needs of the area as it relates to low- to moderate-income individuals than United Way, as that is their charge," Lutheran Social Services' Janell Regimbal wrote.

City staff charged with administering Community Development Block Grants, the funding source for the program, concurred.

Meredith Richards, from the Urban Development Office, said United Way has done its job "very ably" and recommends the council not change anything for now.

Still, in 2009, Urban Development Director Greg Hoover said, the council should get nonprofits together and analyze the allocation process. CDBG dollars are growing scarce, he said, so nonprofits will need to find ways to be more efficient.

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