After another discussion about the process of giving away casino charitable grants, the Unified Government Commission tonight appeared to reach a consensus to continue the program as it is, with small changes.
Commissioners reached a consensus to add a geographic review provision to make sure people are served throughout the county. One commissioner last week said there were no grants awarded in the 5th or 7th districts. Those districts are in northwest Wyandotte County, including Piper, and southwest Wyandotte County, including Bonner Springs. There was only one application west of 78th Street, according to one commissioner.
The commission will vote on the grant guidelines at a future meeting.
A $500,000 sum is contributed annually by the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway to the Unified Government for charitable community activities or social services here, according to UG officials. The funds were part of a negotiated agreement between the UG and the casino.
This past year, the first year for the grants, the UG decided to tie the grants into a theme of Healthy Communities goals. The grant guidelines stated amounts could range from $10,000 to $50,000 each, and there is currently a discussion to lower the minimum. Forty-three applications were received last year and 13 were approved.
Commissioner Ann Murguia said she had supported the original recommendation last week to continue with the status quo for the most part, and see what the outcomes were before making many changes, but there had been an interest last week from other commissioners to think about other methods to spend the charitable dollars.
Tonight she said her alternate idea was to put the $500,000 into the UG’s grind and overlay fund, to be used for sidewalks, curbs or alley improvements throughout the community.
Commissioner Hal Walker said some people might not think of sidewalk improvements as charitable community activities or social services, for which the funds are designated.
Commissioner Murguia said she wouldn’t view these as basic services, because the government doesn’t pay for curbs and sidewalks and it is the homeowner’s responsibility. Improving sidewalks could improve people’s health, she noted.
Some commissioners doubted that $500,000 would go very far in improving sidewalks throughout all the districts.
Commissioner Angela Markley said a sidewalk improvement project could have a big effect if it targeted the high priority sidewalks first.
Commissioner Tarence Maddox said he supported picking a project or two, such as a recreational facility, and leveraging it.
Commissioner Jim Walters, from the 7th District, said maybe there’s a flaw in the way the program was designed, to throw it out to the community of nonprofit organizations and let them put together a program for the UG.
While the casino has given the UG Commission permission to spend the funds however it wants for social services or charitable activities, Mayor Mark Holland said there was a considerable buy-in from the community for charitable activities and social services, and in his opinion, improvements to sidewalks and curbs wouldn’t fit the stated intent of the program.
While the commission wants to know the outcomes of the grants it has given out, the grant year is not over yet and a full year of programs has not been completed.
Commissioner Maddox asked how the commission would evaluate the outcomes. Accountability was a big topic of the selection committee in its discussion with two commissioners, according to Commissioner Murguia.
“I want to see what it’s going to do, what the outcome is going to be,” Commissioner Jane Winkler Philbrook said. She added she thought the commission should give the current program a chance, refine it, look at the outcomes and see if there are other things to do to make it better.
“Let’s gather data before throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Mayor Holland said.
Commissioner Brian McKiernan said he talked with a Hollywood Casino official who said he would be disappointed if the commission abandoned this effort without seeing an outcomes report first.
Commissioner Walker suggested having the UG’s legislative auditor evaluate five or six of the grantees to see how the money was spent.
Commissioner Walters said he would like to see the grant program and the current recipients of the grants listed on the UG’s website.
Another change where there seemed to be consensus was to prohibit university foundations from receiving grants, along with prohibiting other local governments and school districts. The public school districts already receive separate contributions from the casino. If a local community organization is a partner with a university foundation, such as a University of Kansas Medical Center foundation, the grant application would have to be in the name of the community organization, which would have to have nonprofit charitable status.
The commission also spent some time discussing whether or not to rotate members off the selection committee, and when they would leave the committee. The recommendation of the selection committee was to retain the current committee members for the next grant cycle. There seemed to be a consensus to leave the committee members in place for a year.
For an earlier story on this topic, see http://www.wyandottedailynews.com/news/kane-says-5th-district-should-get-its-share-of-casino-charit/.
For a story and a list of organizations that received the casino grants earlier this year, visit http://www.wyandottedailynews.com/opinion/window-on-the-west/half-million-dollars-in-casino-charitable-grants-go-to-local/.