Nonprofits competing for dwindling funds

Published On: Jun 17 2013 10:31:09 PM HST

Nonprofits are being told to follow strict guidelines on how to apply for city grants. It's a process a majority of City Council members waived earlier this month when they passed the budget.

HONOLULU -

The city's Department of Community Services is holding a series of mandatory workshops to ensure nonprofit groups who receive taxpayer grants know exactly what's expected of them as well as the paperwork involved.

The most recent workshop was held Monday morning at the Mission Memorial hearing room, and was attended by more than 40 nonprofit representatives. Community Services Deputy Director Gary Nakata presided over a power point presentation that demonstrated the proper way to fill out forms, and what's expected of those who actually receive grants.    

"So, when Mr. Taxpayer walks in we can say right amount, for the right purpose, to the right people," Nakata told the crowded room.

The more stringent application process and standardized forms are the result of a 2010 report by the Honolulu City Auditor that showed some organizations took advantage of the Leeward Coast Community Benefits package by not fulfilling stated goals and objectives. Organizations were also flagged for using money for operational and administrative costs as well as fundraising activities.

"We obviously want to provide transparency to the taxpayers and hold the nonprofits accountable for the program goals and objectives that they established in the beginning," said Community Services Director Pamela Witty Oakland. "One of the important pieces of that audit was to create standardization procedures as well as provide education for grantees prior to the applications."

Interest in the city's grants-in-aid workshops grew exponentially after Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced earlier this month he was leaning toward withholding an additional $8.3 million given to nonprofits by the Honolulu City Council. During the final budget hearing on June 5, the council went beyond a voter-approved charter amendment that requires a half percent of the city's general fund to be set aside for grants-in-aid. If the mayor makes good on his threat, nonprofits will compete for just $5.5 million of taxpayer funds instead of the nearly $14 million approved by the council.

However, the final decision on whether to award a grant lies with the newly created Grants-in-Aid Advisory Commission, which has seven members appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

Travis Idol of the Hawaii Forest Institute told KITV4 this was his organization's first time applying for a city grant, but he agreed with the level of oversight being bestowed upon groups like his.

"It is certainly important that there is accountability and that how the funds are expended, can be accounted for," said Idol, whose organization wants to landscape the Honolulu Zoo with native plants.  

Last week, it was revealed Council Chairman Ernie Martin signed off on two loan forgiveness documents for the group Opportunities and Resources, Inc. Anuenue Hale that totaled $1.2 million. Martin signed the documents in July and October of 2010 when he was the acting director of Community Services, and was running to represent City Council District 2.

Although the loan documents signed by Martin involve federal Community Development Block Grant funds, it has shed a negative light on the city's grants-in-aid process and potential political influence. According to records by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission, Martin has received political contributions from the founder or ORI totaling $7,000.

Martin told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week he was not involved in the decision to forgive ORI loans.

"I was the only executive left who could have signed those documents,"he told the newspaper.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote a letter to Caldwell on June 3 demanding the city repay the federal government nearly $8 million given to ORI through CDBG funds. HUD alleges ORI did not follow city guidelines on how the money could be spent.    

Oakland said more than 200 representatives from nonprofit groups had taken part in the city's grants-in-aid workshops so far. A final workshop will be held this Wednesday at the Mission Memorial hearing room.

"I think the increased interest is a function of the need that's in our community and the number of organizations willing to address those needs," said Oakland.

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